SONG OF SOLOMON by Toni Morrison Knopf; 337 pages; $8.95
The progress of black American writing, Novelist Toni Morrison once said, is marked by five stages. First comes the heat of protest, and then the more reflective search for personal identity. This is followed by an exploration of culture, a refinement of craft and finally a wider vision of the world. But the important thing, says Morrison, is not to explain but "to bear witness, to record." The author, who is also an editor at Random House, did this in The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973), novels that dealt with blacks in the Middle West, where the author was born in 1931.
Song of Solomon is an exuberant expansion of her themes and literary techniques. Using legend and the tradition of black oral history, she traces a family from Reconstruction to the civil rights movementfrom slavery in the South, to farming in Pennsylvania, to middle-class respectability in a Midwestern town. Song of Solomon will inevitably be compared with Roots. But any comparison must end with the superior quality of Morrison's imagination and prose. Her fictional family is stuck with the portentous name of Dead, the result of an error at the Freedmen's Bureau in Virginia in 1869. "The man behind the desk was drunk," explains one of the Deads. "He asked Papa where he was born. Papa said Macon. Then he asked him who his father was. Papa said, 'He's dead.' The Yankee wrote it all down, but in the wrong spaces."
Morrison's protagonist is also called Macon Deadgrandson of the freed slave. He is nicknamed Milkman because his mother suckled him until he was almost tall enough for his feet to touch the floor. Yet he remains starved as a child for the heritage his silent family cannot or will not provide. His one wish is to fly. "To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull." At twelve, he meets an outcast aunt, Pilate Dead, who fills the role of tribal storyteller. She tells of his grandfather, who was murdered defending his farm from whites, of her own escape with Milkman's father, their quarrel and separation, and her subequent adventures. She weaves a complex fable of magic, death, ghosts and hidden treasure. Nourished by these tales, Milkman retraces his family's steps. He travels to Pennsylvania where a crone named Circe adds to his family history. In the small Virginia town where his grandfather was born, Milkman hears a group of children sing a song that provides the key to his past. The refrain, "Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone/ Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home,"tells the story of an ancestor's mythical escape from slavery. For the reader, the song unlocks the richness of the novel. It is a book in which Morrison achieves her fifth stage an artistic vision that encompasses both a private and a national heritage.