Thursday, July 01, 2010
Toni Morrison made me cry
When I finished reading A Mercy this morning, all I could think was "WOW!" I got up from the dining room table and walked into the living room to get my phone so I could tweet that "WOW!" As I was typing out the tweet, I just started sobbing. I mean crying really hard. I cried for at least five minutes before I could get myself under control. I haven't had that kind of visceral reaction to a book in a very long time.
I love Morrison's work. She is one of my two favorite authors, but I was still stunned by the beauty and sadness of this short novel. How could she say so much in less than 200 pages? I'm a relatively slow reader, but I read this book very fast, starting it yesterday afternoon. It's a real page turner. She interweaves several stories in this novel about a small group of slaves and their owners in seventeenth century America. There is one central thread that holds the stories together, but I never felt impatient when it was interrupted to tell one of the other story lines.
This novel is on its surface a story about slavery, but its also an indictment of religiosity. Both the Papists and the Protestants are shown to perpetuate not just the use of slaves but the racism that allowed it to exist. In addition, the novel is about identity, jealousy, and cruelty, which is too/most often the result of jealousy, I think.
I just kept wondering how people could be so cruel to other people. How does a group of people ever come to believe that they are automatically superior to another group of people and that the proof of their superiority is in the color of their skin? Even the benevolent wife of the benevolent slave owner becomes cruel in the end, which reminded me of Frederick Douglass's Narrative and his descriptions of the dehumanizing effect of slavery on the slave owner. Morrison touches on this idea in Beloved also.
At one point in the novel, someone says or thinks something like "we don't shape the world; the world shapes us." If that's true, then what kind of sad, cruel world do we live in? I'm not trying to be a Pollyanna here. Are humans inherently cruel? I don't understand why someone would ever be cruel to another human being, and I know that I've been guilty of cruelty at some point, probably more than one, in my life. Whether my cruelty was consciously intended or not doesn't change the fact that it happened. Whether I felt my actions provoked or reasonable doesn't change anything either. Maybe that knowledge is one reason this book affected me so.
I've read most of Morrison's works more than once, and I feel like I should read this one again very soon. I wish that I was still teaching AP Literature because my students would be reading this book in the upcoming school year. Now, I'm going to go to bed and read, but I'm not sure what I'll read because I think that no matter what I read tonight, it'll be a disappointing after having just read A Mercy. Later.