“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner in his late play Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” One wonders if Toni Morrison has these two sentences pasted on her desk. Almost all of her novels deal with the shattering power of the memory of past suffering—the ways, in other words, that the past maintains a death grip on the present. Her characters, always beautifully drawn, have been damaged and brutalized by the authorities that rule their lives (be they slaveholders, police, or simply men with too much power) and must find a quiet space in which to deal with the past without jettisoning it altogether.
Morrison has never promoted the classic American myth of the clean break found in everything from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography to J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Renewal is not found, in her novels, by becoming a new person or by severing oneself from one’s ancestry and past life; renewal can be found only by confronting it head-on and occasionally only through re-integration.
Such is the case in her tenth novel, Home, which presents many of the themes and techniques of her earlier fiction succinctly and to great effect. The novel tells the story of Frank and Cee Money, a brother and sister who have escaped from the specter of abuse in their tiny hometown of Lotus, Georgia (an imaginary location that Morrison describes with details that will be familiar to any Georgian who has ventured beyond Atlanta, Athens, and Savannah). Frank is twenty-something veteran of the Korean War whom we first meet in a Seattle insane asylum as he attempts to fake a coma to make his escape:
The trick of imitating semi-coma, like playing dead facedown in a muddy battlefield, was to concentrate on a single neutral object. Something that would smother any random hint of life. . . . He would need something that stirred no feelings, encouraged no memory—sweet or shameful.
Such an object does not exist in Morrison’s fictional world, of course, nor should it. Frank’s PTSD merely gives a medical diagnosis to the condition suffered by all of Morrison’s characters (and all of Faulkner’s, and perhaps all of us): The world is less a physical location than a series of triggers for memories.
Frank is called home to Georgia by a letter that informs him that Cee is dying. Perhaps she will die even if he makes it to her, but she will certainly die if he doesn’t. And so Frank disrupts his crumbling life in the Pacific Northwest to follow a kind of Underground Railroad in reverse, stopping at churches, diners, and private residences. He is Orpheus, descending back into the hell of his childhood in order to pull someone he loves out of it—only this is a Morrison novel, and his creator will not allow his relationship to his past to be so simple.
The chapters with straightforward narration (from Frank’s point of view, of course, but also from Cee’s and from a few other characters, all of whom receive much fuller treatments in their respective chapters than we get from Frank) alternate with italicized chapters featuring Frank speaking directly to—someone, though it is not clear whom. “You’re set on telling my story,” he says, creating a thick confusion between author, reader, and character. We write this book as we read it, and we are sucked into Frank’s story as it is already written for us.
The overarching concern of the novel, as its title suggest, is the notion of home. I am reminded of Robert Frost’s long narrative poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” the centerpiece of which is an argument between a husband and a wife. A man who used to work for them has returned—an undependable man—and the two cannot decide whether to take him in. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in,” says Warren. “I should have called it, / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve,” replies his wife, softer and kinder than him.
Morrison plays with both of these idiosyncratic definitions of home in her novel, and as his journey south continues, Frank Money encounters a variety of representations and misrepresentations of community. People pity one another; they hate one another; and in a few passages, among the best of the novel, they truly love one another and form families without the benefit of biology. These communities are religious in the broadest sense of the word, and they take over where the institutional Church leaves off.
Home, as it turns out for the Moneys, is not merely “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”—it’s something you can’t escape from, for better or for worse. It’s something that creates you that you must then turn around and recreate; it’s something you can neither choose nor keep from choosing. It is free but requires everything from you. The novel is, then, ultimately about grace in the most Christian sense of it: a grace which descends vertically but which must be passed around horizontally.