The first time I read Toni Morrison, I was maybe 11 or 12. My middle school homeroom had a few shelves of old books–untouched, dusty things that were more decoration than they were reading material. One day after school, while waiting for a friend, I picked up The Bluest Eye. I skimmed through it, read a few pages from the middle of it. I remember reading about Autumn not understanding why her privates weren’t in her armpit, and I remember not understanding the passage.
I bring this up because it’s my way of saying I think I was too young to appreciate Morrison. It’s one thing to read the words and make sense of plot and characters. It’s another thing to comprehend the story. At that time, I still lacked a lot of information about the world to truly connect with her writings.
In fall semester last year, one of my creative writing professors claimed that Song of Solomon is easily Morrison’s best work. That’s a big claim, I remembered thinking, especially since my heart belongs to Beloved. Another semester later, and I finally had the novel in my possession. With college over and more time on my hands, I was finally able to read it.
And what the read it was.
Song of Solomon, Morrison’s third novel, was originally published in 1977, finished at a total of 337 pages. I didn’t know much about the novel except that the main character’s name was Milkman Dead and I found that rather funny. The story, as simply as I can put it without spoiling anything, is a coming-of-age piece that follows the life of Milkman Dead. We learn a lot about him: why his name is Milkman; the dynamics of his relationships with women, men, and his family; and what he doesn’t want, his desires, what he likes and hates. The person we know as Milkman is also heavily tied to location, and Morrison shows us how the act of moving from one place to another can change a man. I won’t say too much more about it.
Morrison never fails to impress me with her ability to hone into a character, a network of characters, a community, a place, and bring it to life through words. There’s no denying that it comes so effortlessly to her. In terms of character, she definitely trapped me in a vicious circle of disliking Milkman’s parents but also feel sympathy for them. She also did an excellent job of playing with my expectations of the characters, specifically with Pilate. Our first introduction to Pilate left her in quite a decrepit, unkind light, but by the end of the book my thoughts about her were different, too.
Secondly, Morrison’s network of characters brought the locations she used to life. Michigan, Virginia, the beach houses, the small rural town–all of these locations meaningless without the people to breathe life into them. As a writer who rarely has the plot in mind but has the life and death of the characters all figured out, I always resonate with character-driven books. That is, even if the story didn’t have much of a plot it would still be a compelling read for me because the relationships between the characters are enough to fill the void. At least when it’s well done. I’ve read a few not-so-well-done examples of this and they were a struggle and a half to get through. All of this is to say that I became much more interested in the spaces these characters occupied simply because of their views on it: on the sleepy, dreamlike South, the whitewashing of the beach in Michigan, and so on.
Most importantly, I will always, always, always, be moved by Morrison’s conversations about blackness. For me, I found the height of that to be all of chapter six, in which Milkman and his best friend Guitar had a conversation about what Guitar does in his “free time.” I resonated with many of the themes and ideas they discussed in that chapter, mostly because I, as a Black woman, have had those tough conversations before with friends and family. Reading Morrison reminds me of home, of summers spent at my grandmother’s house and the smell of barbeque. She doesn’t shy from controversy, from the feelings many of us as Black people might share about our community, about America, life in general. Since following Milkman’s life, I didn’t resonate too much with his experience as a Black man, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t walk away from the novel understanding that his life was difficult and his feelings complex (even though in the end I didn’t feel too sympathetic toward him).
Overall, Song of Solomon was a great read, but Beloved will always be my favorite Morrison novel. Or in other words, I think I disagree with my professor that this is her greatest novel. Perhaps it comes down to a matter of personal preference, but Song of Solomon still deserves the praise it receives. I’m glad I got to read the story of Milkman Dead. If you have the time, I suggest you give it a read yourself.
Favorite quote: “The racial problems that consumed Guitar were the most boring of all. He wondered what they would do if they didn’t have black and white problems to talk about. Who would they be if they couldn’t describe the insults, violence, and oppression that their lives (and the television news) were made up of?” —Song of Solomon, pg. 107-108