Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossoming things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.- Toni Morrison, Sula
This is a captivating book about the friendship between two girls (Sula and Nel) with very different personalities. Despite the fact that Sula is the titular character, we’re not introduced to her until halfway through the book. Before that we have the opportunity to discover the poor black community where most of the action will take place, and think more about PTSD in the lives of black American soldiers, while waiting for the central story. In particular, the description of Bottom and how it affects the people who live there sets the stage:
What was taken by outsiders to be slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as “natural” as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows robins could fall. The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide—it was beneath them.
Because I’m reading Morrison’s books in chronological order, and The Bluest Eye was read not too long ago, I was maybe more sensitive to the connections and similarities between the two books. In this book, as in The Bluest Eye, the theme of the two Americas emerges, in particular on the theme of parental love. What does love mean when you are a single black mother of three children, abandoned by your husband and living in a poor, black community? I kept going back to read the passage where Hannah is asking her mother, Eva, whether she had ever loved her, and Eva replied, “You settin’ here with your healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes full of maggots if I hadn’t.” And also:
“Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895. Just ’cause you got it good now you think it was always this good?”
This sentiment was so reminiscent of The Bluest Eye where the black mother showed her love to her children in somewhat gruff ways which weren’t even recognized as love until those children were older. In a sense I feel they were too busy to focus on love as most of us envision it, focusing all their attention on survival instead.
I’m still quite conflicted about Sula, although my opinion of her has softened over the years as I myself have gained more empathy through age and personal experiences. In many ways I sympathize with her; she is smart, a rebel of sorts, doesn’t like traditional expectations of women, and is very unconventional. She tries to forge her own life, even gaining the courage to leave Bottom. But something is missing in her and Morrison tells us that Sula “had no center, no speck around which to grow.” Despite this Morrison is not judgmental in how she portrays her, and it led me to empathizing with her role as an outsider, living in a small community with a small-town mentality. :
In a way, her strangeness, her naivete, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the relentlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.
Although Morrison focuses mainly on the lives of black girls and women in her writing, she also spares a thought to black men. She looks at black masculinity, particularly in the kind of environment that constrains the lives and movement of black people, and what that manifests as:
So it was rage, rage and a determination to take on a man’s role anyhow that made him press Nel about settling down. He needed some of his appetites filled, some posture of adulthood recognized, but mostly he wanted someone to care about his hurt, to care very deeply. Deep enough to hold him, deep enough to rock him, deep enough to ask, “How you feel? You all right? Want some coffee?” And if he were to be a man, that someone could no longer be his mother. He chose the girl who had always been kind, who had never seemed hell-bent to marry, who made the whole venture seem like his idea, his conquest.
In the end, I really enjoyed this book more than I did a decade ago when I first read it. And I’m awed by how much Morrison can pack into a novella of this size.