Books: Paradise Found

The Nobel Prize changed Toni Morrison's life but not her art, as her new novel proves

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 7)

One of the many pleasures of Paradise, for longtime Morrison readers, is watching the ways it picks up and elaborates on subjects and themes from the author's earlier works. There are, for example, females rebelling against patriarchal mores, as in Sula (1974), and black characters judging one another on the relative darkness or lightness of their skin, as in Tar Baby (1981). Morrison conceived Paradise as the final installment of a trilogy that began with Beloved (1987). That haunting tale of a mother, an escaping slave, who loved her daughter so fiercely that she killed her rather than allowing her to be taken back into bondage by her pursuers won the Pulitzer Prize. It was followed in 1992 by Jazz, in which the love of a man for a younger woman turns violent in the Harlem of the 1920s. The form of love anatomized in Paradise is a hunger for security, the desire to create perfection in an imperfect world.

The novel opens starkly--"They shoot the white girl first"--and then coils back and forth through a century of imagined history to explain who "they" are and why, on a dewy Oklahoma morning in 1976, they felt compelled to storm a decaying mansion and wreak violence on the handful of women living within it.

Morrison traces the genesis of this brutal act back to the 1870s, when nine African-American patriarchs, ex-slaves in Mississippi and Louisiana, joined together, gathered their wives and children, picking up a few strays in the process, and headed west to settle in the Oklahoma Territory. Eventually, arduously, they reach a town called Fairly, where their spokesmen appeal to the local citizens, blacks like them except with lighter skin, for permission to settle there. The Fairly leaders say no ("Come Prepared or Not at All"). This rejection will reverberate through the next hundred years of the outcasts' collective memory as the Disallowing. "Afterwards," Morrison writes, "the people were no longer nine families and some more. They became a tight band of wayfarers bound by the enormity of what had happened to them. Their horror of whites was convulsive but abstract. They saved the clarity of their hatred for the men who had insulted them in ways too confounding for language: first by excluding them, then by offering them staples to exist in that very exclusion."

The band of the Disallowed eventually establish Haven, where they install a communal oven in the center of the town and then live in willed isolation from the outside world. Haven thrives for decades until the male descendants of the founding fathers return from service in World War II and find that the place has atrophied in their absence, that residents are moving out, seeking work in cities, looking for a share in the postwar prosperity. So these young men decide to repeat the past. They dismantle the oven, load it on a truck and move it and their families farther west to start up, from scratch, another Oklahoma town, which they name Ruby to honor the woman in their clan who died after the journey. Ruby is 90 miles from anywhere else, which is just what the new patriarchs want, except for a strange old house 17 miles away known locally as the Convent.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7