Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Published in 1977
Genre: African-American Literature
“The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.”
Song of Solomon follows Macon “Milkman” Dead III in his quest to find identification in a world still very divided by skin color. From Milkman’s birth to his open-ended fate, the book chronicles a family whose roots lie farther south than their home in Michigan. When he is told that there may be gold in them thar hills…I mean, hidden in a cave, that his father and aunt found when they were young, Milkman sets off on a journey that leads him closer to himself than he thought was possible.
Much of the book deals with Milkman’s family, who are, in three words, an odd bunch. His father, Macon Dead II, is a stoic and fearsome businessman who married into money and worked his way up to owning his own business. Though this buys him (literally) general respect, there are those who see him as nothing more than a man losing his roots in order to better his own situation. He is married to Ruth, Milkman’s off-kilter mother whose need for love led her to breastfeed Milkman well past the socially appropriate age, earning him the nickname and the gossip of the town. His two sisters, Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians, are reserved and given the small amount of attention in the book which is proportionate to the amount Milkman gives them in his life. Pilate, so named after her father pointed at a random word in the Bible (the same method used to name First Corinthians), is Milkman’s boisterous and self-possessed aunt who gives him a new perspective on life and his place in it. She was also born without a navel and is seen as either closer to or farther from nature depending on who is asked.
Continuing the vein of strange behavior in the family is the recurring incest that the bloodline seems predisposed toward. Ruth, who sought out love all her life in any place she could find it, is accused by her husband of incest with her father. In truth, though her love for her father was intimate, nothing took place between the two. However, Milkman and his cousin Hagar do cross the line and become lovers. This is known throughout the town, yet no one does more than make a snide comment here or there because of the respect that Milkman’s father is given in the town.
Though the book begins with the tale of Milkman’s birth, it encompasses much of his life and as such skips years between many of the early and middle chapters. This shows Morrison’s knowledge that what should be included in the book is only what is necessary to tell the tale. Song of Solomon is a coming of age tale not only for Milkman, but for African-Americans as a whole in finding who they are and who they want to be in this country. This theme permeates the very fabric of the book and each scene and setting builds toward the ultimate goal of showing the struggle of finding oneself on both individual and cultural levels.
There is an intimate glimpse into the conversation had by African-Americans and how they see their place within society, especially in the early decades of the twentieth century. Guitar, Milkman’s friend, becomes militant in his belief that for every black person killed, there should be a white person who shares a similar fate. He is part of a group of seven men called the Seven Days; each man has an appointed day and they take it upon themselves to covertly “even the odds” to maintain a grotesque equilibrium. Guitar confides in Milkman about this and it causes a contentious rift between them, especially due to Milkman’s lackadaisical attitude toward social movements and civil rights. Learning of Guitar’s newfound fraternity, Milkman is forced to take a stand on the issues that he had previously held no interest in.
While the story drives the main appeal of the book, Morrison’s prose is absolutely fantastic and her figurative writing leaves little left to be desired. From summary and exposition explaining the lineage of the town and Not Doctor Street (the colloquial name for a street that once had a Doctor’s office on it) to the deepest expressions of passion and human emotion, her words flow on the page with practiced patience and intricate detail. **Spoiler alert** She also leaves the ending open, allowing the reader to interpret Milkman’s leap as either one toward death or survival.
Song of Solomon is a passionate, if at times tangential, look at the life of African-Americans in the early twentieth century. As a white person living in the early twenty-first, I can say there is much to be learned about the experience of others through this book, as well as a unique perspective to be gained. The book isn’t afraid to follow tough threads of thought to their ends and forces us to look at how we see ourselves and those different from us.
Verdict: 4 unsettling familial relationships out of 5
Recommended for: Those who enjoy complex character studies, people looking to broaden their perspectives, Barack Obama (he once listed it as his favorite book), and you.
Not recommended for: The close-minded, children (there’s some adult language), those who shirk away from troubling truths, or people who don’t empathize easily.