Book Review: Home

Toni Morrison’s novels are rarely quick reads, even the short ones take time to absorb. It’s not the pacing that slows the reader, but the fact that Morrison deserves time and thought. She always includes profound and sometimes unsettling themes within simple plots, and Home is no different.

It is a story about co-dependent siblings. Frank has always protected his younger sister, Ycidra (or Cee), who had been called “gutter child” since she was a baby because she was born while the family traveled. Frank enlists in the Korean War and Cee runs off to marry “a rat,” who steals the car they had borrowed and abandons Cee. After a couple dead-end jobs, Cee becomes a doctor’s assistant and is soon ill from an infection caused by the doctor’s exploration of her womb.

Frank returns from the war as one of the only survivors from his hometown in Georgia. He falls in love with a woman who can calm his post-traumatic stress disorder, but she eventually leaves him. Soon afterward, Frank receives a letter from Sarah, who is a woman who works with Cee. “She be dead,” is all it says. Frank then sets out to travel from outside of Portland to his hometown. On the way, he suffers a PTSD episode in public. The police apprehend him and restrain him in a hospital. He escapes with his clothes and service medal, but no money, and relies on the kindness of strangers in order to take a couple busses and a train back home.

One prevailing theme in Home is the concept that people are inherently good. Both Frank and Cee experience kindness, ignorance, hatred, and desperation from strangers, employers, and family members. While they were children, their grandmother denied them nutritious food and constantly judged Cee to be trash. As an adult, Frank is given charity money, lodging, and gifts of clothes from various strangers as he travels, but he’s also incarcerated and mugged. Cee’s employer uses her as a test subject and causes an infection, but does nothing to cure her. Frank must take Cee back to elderly women in their hometown for medical attention. It takes months for Cee to heal, and weeks until she’s able to return to Frank’s care. In that time, she matures from her exposure to the other women’s personalities and skills, and to her own stupidity. On that matter, Morrison writes, “As usual [Cee] blamed being dumb on her lack of schooling, but that excuse fell apart the second she thought about the skilled women who had cared for her, healed her… So it was just herself. In this world with these people she wanted to be the person who would never again need rescue.”

This touches on a second theme that Morrison often incorporates in her stories: female prowess. Women or girls in her story are either already strong, or they grow from their experiences. Home incorporates both of these types of characters. After reading Morrison’s stories, readers can step back and find the strict or taxing women in their lives and see them in a new perspective, thus finding ways to learn from them. How many of us have had elderly neighbors who gossip and judge, but also help when others need it? How many of us have abusive relatives who could still provide a few lessons if we stopped to listen? How many of us have strong women who were always there, affecting our lives and never receiving gratitude? And finally, how many of us want to be like those women? In this slim book, Morrison causes her readers to consider their lives, recollect all the complaints we’ve issued, and recognize where the fault actually lies and how to fix it, thereby making us stronger.

In tandem with this concept of strong women, the story also contains a few brief passages that offer social commentary that are as true now as in the ’50s. These are lines that stick out, ones that college students underline has key passages that resonate or provide fodder for discussions. It is as if Morrison inserts an “Oh, by the way, has this notion occurred to you yet?” For example, she writes in one passage:
You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you… You young and a woman and there’s serious limitation in both, but you a person too. Don’t let [your grandmother] or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are. That’s slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.

Sadly, racism and prejudice still exist in modern days—people are still segregated, hated, and ridiculed based on the color of their skin or their genders. In addition to this, women are undergoing civil rights issues due to the threat of legislature that limits a woman’s rights to her own body. Morrison’s characters embody both of these issues, especially because of Cee’s infections. The above passage, then, pushes home the concept that we have the strength and the right to save ourselves, to define ourselves without requiring approval from anyone else. Also, the last line, “Locate her and let her do some good in the world,” almost echoes a popular quote from Ghandi: Be the change you wish to see in the world. This passage, then, is a verbal slap upside the head for young women who believe that the outside world is the cause for all their woes.

Morrison also excels at revealing life’s grit. She doesn’t veil details for the sake of propriety. All of her books maintain this writing style, resulting in readers almost expecting curse words, intimate details of bodily functions, or deviant sexual scenes. She writes the uninhibited truth about life. Returning readers may be less prone to being offended by the language. Morrison has a flare for making deviant activity enticing. And, in terms of language, Morrison allows her characters to speak the same way people would in the real world. This is evident in the lack of proper grammar or sentence structure in the narration, as well as in dialogue. People, especially those who are poor and live in the country, do not censor themselves. In a stroke of realism, Morrison doesn’t censor them either. When Cee is ordered to lie out in the sun with her legs spread and without clothes, she protests from embarrassment. One of her caretaker frankly says, “You think your twat is news?” In everyday conversation, many people would be offended by this statement, and yet it appears to be fitting in a Morrison novel. If that is the way people talk when censorship isn’t a concern, then that is the way her characters talk. This complements the narration and provides something tangible in order for the readers to understand location. The language aids in representing “home,” and readers may consider their own hometowns and recognize that language and accents are just as important as the physical details.

However, Frank and Cee’s hometown appears as a backdrop of events rather than a character in itself. Morrison concentrates on her characters and their histories. Even Frank’s journey home is more about the people he meets along the way than the journey itself or the destination. Also, throughout most of the story, Frank and Cee hate their hometown. They both left as soon as possible. In all that time growing up, moving apart, and finding one another again, they each represented home for the other. Only when they were together did they fit in the world. It is only after life takes a turn for the better, toward the end, that Frank and Cee begin to see their hometown as “fresh and ancient, safe and demanding.”

Whereas Morrison fails to turn place into a character, she manages to use the narrator instead. Occasionally, short italicized chapters punctuate the narrative after a few regular chapters. It is almost as if the narrator (who may or may not be Morrison) becomes an off-stage character. The voice in these italicized chapters belongs to Frank, who is speaking to the narrator as that person writes his story. Frank usually opposes the narrator and “clarifies” bits of information or emotion for the narrator’s (and thus the audience’s) benefit. Other times, he seems to reminisce about a moment that had just been explored in a previous chapter, or a new one that the narrator may not have included. In this way, Morrison creates a parallel story. It is also as if the story has a commentary feature, like on a DVD’s special features disc, with character commentary instead of an actor’s. This effect is intriguing. It makes Frank’s character more real, as if Morrison based the entire story off a real-life friend. It provides layers that fold into each other and flatten only at the end of the novel. It leaves readers guessing about what else is omitted from the narration, as well as whether the narrators and characters are reliable storytellers.

Morrison also skillfully shifts points of views between the main characters and secondary characters, who appear only briefly. This is evident in a scene when Frank removes Cee from the doctor’s house. Sarah stands at the door and watches Frank carry Cee away and, for two paragraphs, readers are able to see her side of the story, her fears and expectations. During this brief scene, she provides an explanation of the doctor’s history, which readers would not encounter during the regular narration. The POV returns to Frank when Sarah shuts the kitchen door, because her role is complete.

Despite Morrison’s stable use of realism, she incorporates a touch of magical realism, which exists in most of her stories. In Home, this touch manifests in the form of a short, older man who wears a pale blue zoot suit, a wide-brimmed hat, and pointed white shoes. Frank first sees him on a train. The man sits next to him, says nothing, and soon leaves. There is no indentation from where he sat on the seat. He appears again in a child’s room when Frank is offered shelter for the night from a family. Frank, in alarm, jumps to fight the man and protect the family, but the man again vanishes. This incident suggests that the man is part of Frank’s imagination, perhaps a symptom of his PTSD. However, he doesn’t reappear again until Frank is digging a grave with his sister. This time, Cee notices him while Frank remains oblivious. Here, at the end of the story, readers may suspect that the man was a ghost of the person whom Frank and Cee were burying, a man they had seen buried in a ditch when they were children, and a man who was guiding Frank home in order to do the right thing.

This small insertion of magical realism suggests that in the gritty details of life, there are still fantastic moments that guide and shape us from childhood to adult hood. The fact that the man appears only when Frank is either traveling home or already there might mean that wherever readers consider to be home, magic is there just for us.


Filed under: Book Review, Nicole Bartley, Prose