In case you have no idea what Beloved is about.... I had no idea what it was about even though I've seen it on so many lists of books a serious reader needs to read... it's a story that takes place in Ohio and bounces around the years leading up to the Civil War and then maybe 10 years after. It's the story of Sethe, a runaway slave, who is the mother of 4 children. There's her 18-year old daughter named Denver who lives with her. She had two older sons who left home and she has no idea where they are. The fourth one, a girl slightly older than Denver, died (no spoiler, we learn this pretty early in the story). Sethe didn't have enough money for the inscription on the girl's gravestone. She had just enough to get "Beloved" engraved on the stone.
Unlike most slaves, Sethe's last owners at Sweet Home were kind. They allowed her to "marry" a fellow slave, Halle. As is rare with slaves, all 4 of her children had the same father. Her owner never had his way with her. The slaves that were the property of the Garners were treated pretty fairly or as fairly as slaves might be treated. Halle was able to work outside and buy his mother's freedom for her. Until Mr. Garner died and Mrs. Garner sends for a relative referred to as "schoolteacher" to run the place and who is the complete opposite of kind. The slaves talk about running away, they make a plan. In the end, Sethe sends her three children alone with someone to her mother-in-law in Ohio. She follows shortly behind, giving birth to Denver with the assistance of a white woman while she is in the process of escaping. That's probably enough of a recap of the story without giving too much away.
I still haven't reviewed Beloved on goodreads.com. I have no idea how many stars I feel that it might deserve. I have, however, read through many of the reviews online since finishing yesterday. Based on reviews, Beloved is the type of book that people either love or hate. It's got a lot of 5-star reviews and a lot of 1-star reviews. I honestly don't know how I felt about the book.
Things I do know:
- The picture painted of slavery and of being a free black in the north is probably one of the most horrific that I've ever read. And I've read a lot of books about slavery and the time leading up to and after the Civil War. This was gut wrenching, stomach churning and frightful beyond words. I'm surprised I didn't have nightmares.
- Toni Morrison might be this amazing writer but I found her writing very slow to get through. Especially once the story went from being a narrative to a collection of words (stream of conscience??) somewhere in the middle of the book. The narrative was difficult to follow and I found myself reading the same words over an over. When it was no longer a narrative, I just kind of flew through that section since what was the point in struggling over what Morrison was trying to tell me? Then it goes back to being narrative. Maybe I got used to her writing. Or I figured out a way to make sense with it. I finished that chapter more quickly than the first two.
- Because of the previous two points, no matter how much time I had to read on a given day, I couldn't read more than a few pages. The atrociousness of the tale combined with the difficult language (not the individual words but rather the way Morrison strings words together in sentences and paragraphs) made it a book that I couldn't lose myself in.
- I don't like books that are over 300 pages long and only have three chapters. I felt like there were no ending points, no obvious places where it made sense to take a break.
- I kind of lost track of who some of the peripheral characters were.
- I was confused about whether a few characters were white or black. Ordinarily that wouldn't make a difference but in a book about a runaway slave and free blacks, I think it probably was more important than in most other stories.
- I know that the book club discussion about the novel will be a good one. We'll be able to talk about the characters, the plot, the "fantasy" aspect of the storyline and about Toni Morrison's way with words.
- In a ridiculous way, even though I can never get back the time I devoted to reading Beloved, I can now proudly say that I read it. (Remember, it's on a lot of those lists of books that any serious reader should read before she or he dies.)
Update: I was one of only two people at Books & Beer Club last week that didn't love Beloved. The other woman who didn't love it likes to read happier things. She didn't like Everything that Rises Must Converge, the collection of Flannery O'Connor short stories that we read last month. And I loved that. One woman said she sat down and read the book in one sitting. I truly can't imagine.
The book club discussion was, as I expected, a good one. One of our members came with lots of information about Toni Morrison which was very interesting. We spoke about the book longer than we do with most books. Did it give me a better appreciation for the book? Not exactly. It made me realize that I did appreciate the strength and power of Toni Morrison's words. By not loving it, I didn't appreciate it any less than those who did love the book. I still believe, though, that this is a book best read when you know you'll have someone to discuss it with.