Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that you can't go home again, but Toni Morrison's new book suggests that sometimes it's the best and only place you can go.
Morrison, 81, is already a Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner; in April it was announced she will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She became a literary icon with epic works like Beloved; Home is more compact, a novella really — but one packed with more memorable characters, striking images and emotional insights than many novels three times its size.
It begins with a memory, narrated by Frank Money, one of the two main characters. In the early 1940s, Frank, then about 8, walked with his little sister, Cee, from their tiny, all-black town of Lotus, Ga., to a pasture a few miles away. There they crawled under a fence; they were not interested in a nearby building surrounded by cars, but in a herd of horses. They watched in wonder as a pair of stallions, "so beautiful. So brutal. . . . stood like men" to battle for the mares.
That moment of awe is crushed when they try to leave and must hide from a group of men, witnessing from the tall grass the burial of a black man in a rude grave. That mysterious, perilous moment will mark them, and come back to haunt them in strange ways.
Most of the book takes place in the early 1950s. Restless in their little town, raised under the thumb of a mean step-grandmother while their parents work themselves to death in the fields, Frank and Cee are both eager to leave Lotus.
He enlists in the Army with his two best friends, just in time for the Korean War. Only Frank will return, tortured by memories of "a boy pushing his entrails back in, holding them in his palms like a fortune-teller's globe shattering with bad news; or he heard a boy with only the bottom half of his face intact, the lips calling mama," not to mention the pointless death of a tiny Korean girl, her hand clutching an orange scavenged from a dump.
Cee leaves not long after Frank does. At 14, she marries a visitor from Atlanta. He borrows her parents' car and takes her to the city, where he soon abandons her (but keeps the car). She works a series of jobs and finally lands what she thinks is a good one. Assisting a white doctor in the tony suburb of Buckhead, she admires "how many more poor people — women and girls, especially — he helped." Her education and experience of the world are too limited for her to see anything ominous in his obsession with the Confederacy and his shelf full of books on eugenics; when he asks her to help with his experiments, she assents.
Once back in the United States, Frank stays in California. A seamstress named Lily helps stitch his life together somewhat, but he drinks too much, shudders between depression and rage, ends up in a hospital that he escapes in the middle of the night. He's driven by a letter he receives from the doctor's housekeeper about his sister: "Come fast. She be dead if you tarry."
Frank's cross-country odyssey and his rescue of Cee read like a fever dream. Penniless, jobless, homeless, he has no place to take her but back to Lotus.
There they both discover that home is not exactly the way they remember it. Cee, grievously injured, is firmly taken over by "those women with seen-it-all eyes," the town's tightly knit group of mothers and grandmothers and sisters who have faced down poverty and prejudice and loss all their lives. (That group does not include her snobby step-grandmother.)
They bring Cee back, and they teach her quilting, a skill "they had been taught by their mothers during the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life."
In the meantime, Frank, too, is discovering a community in Lotus that was opaque to him as a child. He is also piecing together mysteries, including the one he and his sister witnessed so long ago. Lotus is still no paradise, but in a clumsy quilt and the bank of a peaceful stream, there's redemption.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.