There is a reason why Toni Morrison is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature; why her celebrated literary genius has earned her great respect in our country and abroad. Her poetic, imagery and telling narrative of historical moments is never more evident than in the emotional story of Sula.
I once commented that one is truly grown up when they can read Morrison and delve into the feelings behind her poetic writing.
Sula is a classic, first published in 1973, and at the cusp of black intellectual thought and progressive movements of the 1970s. Morrison was a contemporary of Dr. Angelou, each of these strong, black female writers contributed to the literary discourse we celebrate almost forty years later.
This historical fiction, set in a small Ohio town, a place in the North, begins in 1919 and ends in 1965 – spanned that crucial time in American history from the end of World War I to the height of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights era. It follows the characters of this small town, set apart, not the integrated North imagined in the segregated South. The time, the era is a backdrop to this story that is at once about that time and place, the limitations it placed on the men and women, the location of their part of town, the Bottoms in what was then the most undesirable (to the whites) location – away from the town center, away from the water, the place where rainfall ran down the hill to the valley, to where the whites lived and prospered. Yet, this book was not about that part of the story.
This story resonated with me most deeply because I just returned to my second hometown, the place where I moved to as a little girl, much like some of the characters in Sula. The place where the whites had their side of town and rituals and the blacks had their’s. A place where I met my first friend, both of us in 3rd grade, formative time, growing time, as Nel said at the end of the book, “we were girls together.”
This book is about the two girls who became women, who shared the deep bond forged through the discovery of life, until adult choices rendered them on different paths. They came back together, later in life, and one careless act destroyed and silenced the yearning of both their hearts, unrealized until the final place called one home, illuminating the void, the thing hoped for all the years before.
Who can know the heart of a woman? Who can know her motives? Who can know her thoughts? Sometimes it truly is that first friend, that girl who shared your little girl secrets and giggles at the lake, the one who knew your thoughts before you spoke them, the bond between you so deep, 45 years in the making.
This book joins the anthology that is Toni Morrison’s lyrical, poetic, illustrative, probing prose – uncovering emotions and rendering them in plain view to be examined, evaluated, and endeared.
Sula is a woman we journey with through the wanderings of her life and quest for selfhood in a time of turmoil, change, upheaval, and unrest. She went against tradition in more than one way. She held a terrible secret, learned independence by the way she was raised, used men for one purpose only, and even in the end, departed under her own terms, she was a feminist without being called one.
This novel aquaints and reaquaints us with those things we love and loathe about everyone knowing everyone. A small town can be unforgiving if one acts outside the norm and can be protective of its own unusual characters when faced with an onslaught of outsiders. As in this small town in Ohio, like my small town in Missouri, we meet a cast of characters that make communal living at times funny and at other times frightening.
We understand the quirks of certain characters, like Shaddrack out on Suicide Day, and as time goes on, generations change, and celebrations happen without remembering the origin, we understand the dynamic that binds us to a place, makes it part of our identity. The draw back home, even while exploring the world, sometimes is a matter of the heart being healed and love being remembered.