Where to start with Toni Morrison books
What is it called when you feel such a close kinship with an absolute stranger that she ceases to be a stranger? Is it idol worship? I cannot say I worshipped Morrison because I am not an idolater but what I felt was something close. Her work spoke to me in a way I needed to be spoken to; understood and not judged. I soaked up her wisdom and feel it infused in my very marrow. In 1978, Morrison said of James Baldwin; “I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me, were nevertheless unmistakable, even if unenforced: that I work and think at the top of my form, that I stand on moral ground but know that ground must be shored up by mercy, that ”the world is before me and I need not take it or leave it as it was when I came in.” This is the same unissued command I get whenever I pick up a Morrison book. She was incomparable and prolific in her works, funny and honest in person. She liked to write before the sun came up, she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, with coffee in the early hours before work, before her two children got up in the morning. It was published in 1970, when she was 39.
Morrison wrote eleven novels and countless other essays, nonfiction books, plays, children’s fiction, and even a libretto. She was the 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature, and won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. She was a novelist, essayist, editor, teacher, and a professor emeritus at Princeton University.
Morrison grew up in the American Midwest. Many don’t know that she got her start in the literary world through publishing, becoming the first black woman senior editor in the fiction department of Random House, where she played a crucial role in pushing African American literature into the mainstream of publishing. She worked with authors including Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis, and one of the first books she helped to publish was a collection of contemporary African literature which included Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe among its authors. This icon was a living example that it is possible to be intelligent without being condescending and that you do not need others to be on their knees for you to feel strong. Her work is often dreamy and surrealist, and they ask a lot of the reader, with their changing perspectives and jumble of time. She creates characters that jump off the page and into your life. They pull at your heartstrings, make you think, make you hope and expand your life for more. If you are yet to get on the Morrison train, I envy you the fulfilling and joyful ride ahead of you. If you have been this way before, here is a quick catch up on my all-time favourites.
The Bluest Eye
Reading The Bluest Eyes is a perfect introduction to Morrison’s world. At its center, this novel is about Pecola, a young black girl who just wants blue eyes, but its narration ranges throughout her world, and that strange, roving perspective combined with the narrator’s voice will help you decide on your next read.
Beloved is arguably Morrison’s most famous or classic book. It is about the post-slavery life of Sethe, a mother who was a slave at a place called Sweet Home, about a baby named Beloved, and about a daughter named Denver. Morrison was inspired by the tale of Margaret Garner, a woman who killed her own daughter rather than allow her to be put back into slavery, and about the argument that ensued—the abolitionists wanted her hanged, because she was a person capable of murder, while the slave owners argued that she was only property, and so should be returned to her owner. She combined that tale with a vision of a woman on a tree stump that she saw one day from her window to write this tale of loss and longing.
Song of Solomon
Morrison wrote Song of Solomon after her father died, when she found herself wanting to dig into a story about male relationships. It is a coming-of-age tale about a man named Milkman Dead, born shortly after an eccentric in town committed suicide, claiming he was trying to fly. Milkman is born restless, and Morrison follows him throughout his journey as he sets out to learn more about his family’s history. It is a transcendent story about understanding another human being, and about escape, and flight.
In 1926, door-to-door salesman Joe Trace shoots and kills his 18-year-old lover. At the funeral, his hairdresser wife Violet tries to attack the girl’s corpse. Lives of the couple and of the people who cared about Dorcas intertwine; there are long monologues from some of the characters; there are side stories into generations and links of family members and stories that got Joe and Dorcas and Violet to this point. It is an improvisational, dreamy novel that captures much of what I love about living in the city, and highlights the differences between love and obsession.
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” Paradise begins with mass violence, then goes back to trace what brought the narrative to this point. Ruby is a patriarchal “paradise” built by the descendants of freed slaves in an attempt to escape a world that’s cruel to black Americans. But it finds itself threatened, or perceives itself to be, by a small, matriarchal community of women that lives not far out of town. This was my first Morrison novel, and is the closest to my heart, a scathing look at the way that patriarchies seek to blame subversive womanhood for their problems, full of ambiguity and lush descriptions. But my favorite tidbit about this novel is that Morrison has said fans often ask her, or try to imply they know the answer to, the question: which is the white girl? As if, she pointed out, it would matter.
Morrison’s second novel focuses on a young black girl named Sula, who matures into a strong and determined woman in the face of adversity and the distrust, even hatred, of her by the black community in which she lives. Morrison delves into the strong female relationships between the novel’s women and how these bonds both nurture and threaten individual female identity. Also, she questions to what extent mothers will go to protect their children from a harsh world, and whether or not these maternal instincts ultimately are productive or harmful.