Book Notes: ‘Home,’ by Toni Morrison
Home. We are lucky if we find it. Some people are born into it. Others have to build it. But it’s never too late to know home.
In Toni Morrison’s newest novel, “Home,” Frank Money and his younger sister Cee return to Georgia as young adults to heal, to acquire competencies, to make right what they can.
As African-Americans in the mid-1950s, their resources are unimaginably limited and their vulnerabilities just as mind-boggling. “They treat dogs better,” Rev. John Locke tells a down-and-out Frank, who has been back from the Korean War for a year. He has been drifting from city to city since his honorable discharge.
When the novel begins, Frank is escaping from a hospital where he is shackled and drugged after a violent episode for which he has no recall. From time to time, he says, he “goes ape.” It’s PTSD and the Army doctors tell him eventually the spells of rage and disorientation will subside.
Rev. Locke gives him the money from the donation box and a stack of sandwiches so Frank can get from the West Coast to Atlanta, where his sister is said to be deathly ill.
Frank enlists with his two lifelong best buddies from Lotus, Ga. While in Korea, one dies in his arms and the other is mortally wounded in his presence. His own injuries are embedded in his heart and his brain. He is haunted by his own unbearable act of violence. His protracted grief over his friends’ deaths allows him to avoid even greater grief.
Frank’s enlistment means that he must abandon his sister Cee, who has needed his love and protection. She was abused by her grandmother Lenore while Cee and Frank’s parents each worked two jobs. Cee ran off with a “rat” of a man as soon as Frank left for the war and got herself in real trouble. While out West, Frank receives a note from an employee of the doctor that Cee works for telling him, “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.”
The bones of the story, described above, are filled with a uniquely Toni Morrison life force. This essential marrow is made up of 1950s American culture, a brutal African-American experience pervasive throughout the United States, the Moneys’ past horrors of being driven out of town, along with 14 other families, by a group of men who beat to death the one old black man who refuses to budge. And in the first gorgeously written scene in the book, Cee and Frank, as youngsters, witness a group of men burying a black person in a hole they’ve dug in a pasture.
Frank’s manhood is at stake in this book. Enlisting to fight a war was an act of escape and adventure. Witnessing the bloody deaths of his friends, just like witnessing the burial of the unknown black person, were passive, incapacitating experiences. The first time Frank finds an opportunity to take a stand and fight back is when he hears that his sister is near death. He rescues her, burning with fever and emaciated, from the doctor’s clutches. The doctor has been performing medical experiments on the black people he has no use for.
Along with manhood is Frank’s correct idea that unresolved shame is a danger. He sees a black man attacked at a train station. The man’s wife intervenes and they both manage to get back on the train with Frank. Frank sees this scene and imagines that the man will surely beat his wife when they get home. She has born witness to his male vulnerabilities. No man can stand for that, thinks Frank who suffers from a much greater shame.
Cee has a parallel journey to womanhood. She is healed by a group of black women who take turns actively treating and caring for her. They are tough and they are hard on her. Toughness is one of the lessons Cee needs to learn. Once her recovery is assured, the women begin working on helping Cee build confidence and character. By the time she leaves, she is ready to move into the family homestead with her brother and take on life.
In Toni Morrison’s book, a boy and a girl walk away from their past. Both confront atrocities most of us cannot imagine. Upon their return, they discover not just home but a way forward.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.