Milkman’s father, the man with the weird name and mysterious past, teaches his son to ‘own things’. His sister is ‘wild’, she inhabits the opposite pole. Ownership does not occur to her. When a kind woman brings her cherry jam on white bread, she weeps because the fruit she loves for the taste of sun and earth exploding, the feel of stalk and stone and bark-scraped knees, has lost these elements that forge the relationships between self and world and being that have nothing to do with property, lines of nourishment and communication. Lost those routes to ecstasy, and been, in a way, poisoned by sugar, the white addiction for which women and men were kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic to cut cane in stolen fields.
Own things! But Milkman has always had pleasant things for his use, unlike his friend Guitar, who longs for them. Instead of such things, he yearns for freedom of movement; for cars and trains and boats to carry him away, and for power over people. Both of them know they can seek these ends through money. Their desire burns so brightly they forget to be just, to be kind.
In Toni Morrison’s books pain is powerful and histories bend hearts. What grows must grow from poisoned soil, reaching for healing in the sun if it can. She peels back skin to show us the potentialities lurking in the root. What will flower out of this? What will fruit? Like slow saplings or sudden briars the shoots of her stories unwind, organic, uncontrollable, smelling of the earth, rank and sweet.
I love this as a story of love both destructive and creative and for its mood and structure, cyclic and fluid rather than linear and climactic. I noticed that action initiated by men is often diffused by women, and when this does not happen there is a dangerous escalation of physical or emotional violence, though this is a severe simplification. The atmosphere reminded me very much of Katharine Mansfield’s stories.
This tale is sometimes like a mystery, signed with foreshadowings, flavoured with interludes of anguished self-reflection, male psyches working their half-conscious preoccupations, changing in the unexpected light of their encounters. That Milkman’s materialist quest leads him to its spiritual pretext is a fabular gift; how often is someone lucky enough to find what they need when they pursue what they want? Can I allow myself to believe that this doesn’t only happen in tales?
Mystery, fable, and also ghost story, for here the dead speak. Morrison tells us in the foreword that it was inspired by her own dead father’s unexpectedly active presence in her life. She invites us to hear our dead, and work to fathom their words, however strange.