Today is Toni Morrison’s birthday, so let’s celebrate this amazing Ohio author with an Author Spotlight! Toni’s books skillfully blend elements of fantasy and magical realism with the brutal realities of the slave trade and the rich history of African Americans. Her books are an emotional gut-punch, powerful, and difficult to put down. If you’re looking for something to start with, why not try a title on this list?
It’s probably cheating, but let’s start this list off with Toni Morrison’s most well-known book, Beloved. Beloved is a ghost story and you can tell from the opening lines that it’s going to be a powerful and emotional tale: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.” Sethe was born into slavery and escaped to Ohio, but though the years have passed, she’s still haunted by the memories of Sweet Home and the hideous things that happened to her there. She’s also haunted by the angry, destructive ghost of a baby, the same baby she buried nameless, with a tombstone that only says “Beloved”. But, years later, a teenage girl arrives on her doorstep calling herself Beloved, and Sethe’s terrible secret is forced to the surface.
Sula follows the lives of two black heroines, from childhood in a small, close-knit Ohio town to womanhood. Nel Wright has chosen a quiet life, staying in the place where she was born in order to get married, raise a family, all the things expected of her. She soon becomes a pillar of the black community. Her friend Sula Peace rejects that life, however. She runs off to college, gets an education, and throws herself fully into the big-city life. When Sula returns to their small town, it’s as a seductress and a rebel, and the opposite of everything that Nel has become. Their eventual meeting forces both women to realize that they must now confront the consequences of their own choices and the people they have become. Can a friendship survive when two people have grown so drastically different?
Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye is the story of a young girl growing up in Lorain, Ohio. Pecola Breedlove is an eleven-year old African American girl who prays for her eyes to turn blue, so that she can be as beautiful as the blue-eyed blonde children of America. In the autumn of 1941, the same year that the marigolds in the Breedlove family’s garden do not bloom, Pecola life does change, but not in the hopeful ways she had envisioned for herself, but in painful, devastating ways. This heartrending book explores the nightmare of longing and the horrors of its fulfillment.
Milkman Dead was born shortly after the neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. And for the rest of his life, Milkman will also be trying to fly. This imaginative novel is a transformative coming-of-age story, following Milkman from the rustbelt city back to the town of his family’s origins. His world is populated by eccentric and diverse characters, including seers, liars, and assassins, an entire cast of strivers struggling to make a place for themselves in the world. Song of Solomon is a powerful kaleidoscope of characters, stories, and magic, all bound together into a beautiful tapestry. This is a complex book, but well worth the time for anyone who desires to tackle it.
It’s the winter of 1926, and Joe Trae, a middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products shoots his teenage lover to death. At her funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse. In this powerful, tale of love and obsession, Morrison draws us back and forth through time, assembling a narrative from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life. Jazz “transforms a familiar refrain of jilted love into a bold, sustaining time of self-knowledge and discovery. Its rhythms are infectious” (People).
In the 1680s, the slave trade in America is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer decides, in spite of his distaste for dealings in “flesh,” decides to take a small slave girl as a partial payment for a bad debt from a Maryland plantation owner. This young girl is Florens, whose ability to read and write makes her quite valuable. And Vaark is confident that she’ll be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens is desperately searching for love, first from Vaark’s older servant woman, Lina, and later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into her life. A Mercy looks at the story that lies beneath the surface of the slave trade, and at its core is a emotional and often disturbing story of a mother who abandons her daughter in order to protect and save her, and the daughter who may never be able to overcome the abandonment.
Most of Toni Morrison’s novels are focused on the past history. But, God Help the Child is her first with a contemporary setting. This is a searing tale of childhood trauma about a woman called Bride, gorgeous with stunning blue-black skin, and a bold, confident nature. But, it was this same beautiful gift which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love, until she told a lie that ruined the life of an innocent woman, and its reverberations refuse to diminish. Morrison’s book is populated with broken and powerful characters: Booker, the man Bride loves and loses, and who carries a childhood anger after the death of his beloved brother; Rain, a mysterious white child who finds in Bride a confidant, and the only person she can talk to about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother; and Sweetness, Bride’s own mother, who takes a lifetime to understand the all-important lesson that “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”