If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, ''Beloved'' will put them to rest. In three words or less, it's a hair-raiser. In ''Beloved,'' Ms. Morrison turns away from the contemporary scene that has been her concern of late. This new novel is set after the end of the Civil War, during the period of so-called Reconstruction, when a great deal of random violence was let loose upon blacks, both the slaves freed by Emancipation and others who had been given or had bought their freedom earlier.
But there are flashbacks to a more distant period, when slavery was still a going concern in the South and the seeds for the bizarre and calamitous events of the novel were sown. The setting is similarly divided: the countryside near Cincinnati, where the central characters have ended up, and a slave-holding plantation in Kentucky, ironically named Sweet Home, from which they fled 18 years before the novel opens. There are many stories and voices in this novel, but the central one belongs to Sethe, a woman in her mid's, who is living in an Ohio farmhouse with her daughter, Denver, and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs.
We never know this child's full name, but we - and Sethe - think of her as Beloved, because that is what is on her tombstone. Sethe wanted ''Dearly Beloved,'' from the funeral service, but had only enough strength to pay for one word. Payment was 10 minutes of sex with the tombstone engraver. This act, which is recounted early in the novel, is a keynote for the whole book: in the world of slavery and poverty, where human beings are merchandise, everything has its price, and price is tyrannical.
As the novel opens, the ghost is in full possession of the house, having driven away Sethe's two young sons. Old Baby Suggs, after a lifetime of slavery and a brief respite of freedom - purchased for her by the Sunday labor of her son Halle, Sethe's husband -has given up and died. Sethe lives with her memories, almost all of them bad.
Denver, her teen-age daughter, courts the baby ghost because, since her family has been ostracized by the neighbors, she doesn't have anyone else to play with. The supernatural element is treated, not in an ''Amityville Horror,'' watch-me-make-your-flesh-creep mode, but with magnificent practicality, like the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw in ''Wuthering Heights. As Baby Suggs says, ''Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief.
We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband's spirit was to come back in here? Don't talk to me. You lucky.
It is, after all, her adored child, and any sign of it is better, for her, than nothing. This grotesque domestic equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of Paul D. The Sweet Home men were the male slaves of the establishment. Their owner, Mr. Garner, is no Simon Legree; instead he's a best-case slave-holder, treating his ''property'' well, trusting them, allowing them choice in the running of his small plantation, and, calling them ''men'' in defiance of the neighbors, who want all male blacks to be called ''boys.
Garner dies, and weak, sickly Mrs. Garner brings in her handiest male relative, who is known as ''the schoolteacher. Accompanying him are his two sadistic and repulsive nephews. From there it's all downhill at Sweet Home, as the slaves try to escape, go crazy or are murdered. Sethe, in a trek that makes the ice-floe scene in ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' look like a stroll around the block, gets out, just barely; her husband, Halle, doesn't. Paul D. THROUGH the different voices and memories of the book, including that of Sethe's mother, a survivor of the infamous slave-ship crossing, we experience American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange, both at its best - which wasn't very good - and at its worst, which was as bad as can be imagined.
Above all, it is seen as one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised. The slaves are motherless, fatherless, deprived of their mates, their children, their kin. It is a world in which people suddenly vanish and are never seen again, not through accident or covert operation or terrorism, but as a matter of everyday legal policy.
Slavery is also presented to us as a paradigm of how most people behave when they are given absolute power over other people. The first effect, of course, is that they start believing in their own superiority and justifying their actions by it. The second effect is that they make a cult of the inferiority of those they subjugate. It's no coincidence that the first of the deadly sins, from which all the others were supposed to stem, is Pride, a sin of which Sethe is, incidentally, also accused. In a novel that abounds in black bodies - headless, hanging from trees, frying to a crisp, locked in woodsheds for purposes of rape, or floating downstream drowned - it isn't surprising that the ''whitepeople,'' especially the men, don't come off too well.
Horrified black children see whites as men ''without skin. There are a few whites who behave with something approaching decency. There's Amy, the young runaway indentured servant who helps Sethe in childbirth during her flight to freedom, and incidentally reminds the reader that the 19th century, with its child labor, wage slavery and widespread and accepted domestic violence, wasn't tough only for blacks, but for all but the most privileged whites as well.
There are also the abolitionists who help Baby Suggs find a house and a job after she is freed.
But even the decency of these ''good'' whitepeople has a grudging side to it, and even they have trouble seeing the people they are helping as full-fledged people, though to show them as totally free of their xenophobia and sense of superiority might well have been anachronistic. Toni Morrison is careful not to make all the whites awful and all the blacks wonderful.
Sethe's black neighbors, for instance, have their own envy and scapegoating tendencies to answer for, and Paul D. But then, considering what he's been through, it's a wonder he isn't a mass murderer.
If anything, he's a little too huggable, under the circumstances. Back in the present tense, in chapter one, Paul D. So it appears. But then, along comes a strange, beautiful, real flesh-and-blood young woman, about 20 years old, who can't seem to remember where she comes from, who talks like a young child, who has an odd, raspy voice and no lines on her hands, who takes an intense, devouring interest in Sethe, and who says her name is Beloved.
Students of the supernatural will admire the way this twist is handled. Morrison blends a knowledge of folklore - for instance, in many traditions, the dead cannot return from the grave unless called, and it's the passions of the living that keep them alive - with a highly original treatment. The reader is kept guessing; there's a lot more to Beloved than any one character can see, and she manages to be many things to several people.
She is a catalyst for revelations as well as self-revelations; through her we come to know not only how, but why, the original child Beloved was killed. And through her also Sethe achieves, finally, her own form of self-exorcism, her own self-accepting peace. Here, for instance, is Sethe remembering Sweet Home:.
It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Sign up here. A new kind of Jewish learning experience designed for parents and children to participate in parallel tracks in a warm, home-based setting. No classrooms, no blackboards, no homework; just a fully engaged intellectual and sensory exploration of the joys of Jewish life.
We believe that children are most enthusiastic about Jewish living when they see their parents excited and curious in their own adult Jewish lives.
We also believe that many kids learn best when they get their hands dirty. One Saturday afternoon per month, families will come together for multigenerational learning led by experienced Jewish educators. Kids will plant, cook, garden, create, and engage in service learning as part of age-appropriate lessons about Jewish values and the Jewish calendar, while parents gather separately for nourishing Jewish learning and reflection. At the end of the afternoon we will celebrate havdalah the ritual at the end of Shabbat and share a meal as a whole community. We will also welcome Shabbat together one Friday evening per month with song, prayer, learning, and dinner.
Our goal is to experience a Jewish life that engages mind, heart, body, and spirit in a lifelong exploration of what it means to be a human being. RSVP here. Jews are commanded to love the Divine with all our hearts, and to repeat that declaration of love via the Shema prayer multiple times a day. What does it actually mean?
What might that love look like? What gets in the way? We will come together as a family of Beloveds to share in gratitude and a delicious home-cooked meal. All are welcome. They live at Beloved with their three young children. The seed of Beloved was planted for Sara on the bus home from the Women's March in DC when she realized that what we need in the Jewish community may not be more education, more trips, or more worship options, but instead places where we can learn, using the tools of our powerful tradition, to open our hearts to each other, share our grief and our longings, and break bread together.
Nothing less will allow us to awaken ourselves to the transformation we are seeking. Prior to Beloved, Sara's experiences as a community organizer, birth doula, and hospital chaplain inspired her to found ImmerseNYC , a pluralistic, feminist, grassroots-energized community mikveh project. Sara has published poetry and essays on motherhood, Jewish innovation, and healing in various Jewish books and publications. Isaac's journey towards starting Beloved with Sara began when he realized he wanted more from life than his career in progressive politics.
As a child of an interfaith family, it wasn't always easy to find a spiritual or religious home. In many ways, he's still seeking, though he has put down roots at Beloved. Professionally, Isaac is a faith-rooted social change organizer, leadership coach, strategist, and writer committed to bringing the transformational power of spirituality and faith to bear on the biggest challenges facing our society.