Home, by Toni Morrison

This 2012 novel is a departure for Toni Morrison. It's much shorter than her other novels; the language is unusually spare; and the structure sets her an intriguing challenge. My book club all enjoyed it, and found much to discuss. Home is the story of Frank Money, back a year from Korea and still suffering from what today we would call PTSD: periods of rage or lethargy, lost time that he cannot recall. We first meet him waking up in a mental hospital in restraints after one of these episodes. He has to escape, though, and get back to Georgia to rescue his little sister.

Unwilling to go back to Lotus, Georgia when he was first discharged, he has only recently found a measure of peace in a relationship with a woman named Lily, when he receives a mysterious note that says, “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.” Rescuing his sister from whatever is threatening her has been the driving force of his life, right up until he and his two best friends joined the Army to escape from the boring emptiness of Lotus. They both died in Korea, and Frank cannot bear to face their families. But he has to go to his sister, who works for a doctor outside of Atlanta, and he has to get there as fast as he can. It is not clear what city he is in, perhaps fittingly, but has to make his way to Portland—Oregon, I assume—and then to Chicago before going on to Atlanta. Once he finds her, the only place he can take her is Lotus.

The chapters alternate, more or less, with a first person narrative by Frank. He speaks directly to whoever is telling the story. The other chapters, while all third person point of view, move between the characters: one being close in on Cee, Frank's sister; another on Lily; another on Frank's step-grandmother, etc. This structure becomes an extraordinary exercise in voice, as Morrison slightly adapts the language and the syntax for each character: Cee's helplessness showing in incomplete sentences and dreamy descriptions, for example, while Lily's practicality comes across in unadorned, businesslike prose.

While the title makes it clear that this is a story about home, it is also a story about fighting: what we fight for, who we perceive as the enemy, or when instead of fighting we disappear in the night. Scattered throughout the story are incidents of the casual violence and injustice that people of color suffered during the 1950s, more widespread than those today.

At least one person in my book club remained unconvinced by Frank's return to Lotus, by his finding it no longer the straitjacket it seemed to him as a boy, but instead the ideal place to live. Of course, our view of things changes as we grow older, but to me the appeal Lotus holds for Frank is its safety. It is the one place where he and Cee are safe, just as it was the safe place his parents fled to when driven from their homes in Texas, and the place their step-grandmother came to hide from those who shot her first husband because they wanted his gas station.

While one might think Lotus is the home referred to in the title, what the story tells us is that home isn't a place. It's even more than the strong bond of family: Frank and Cee became so close because their parents, working multiple jobs, ignored them; their grandfather didn't care about them; and his wife actively abused them. No, the real home here is the community: the collection of women who nurse Cee back to health, the people who take care of the orphaned boy who stumbles into town, the men who help Frank out along the road.

I understood what my book club friend meant, though, because I too thought Frank's change a bit abrupt. The story sometimes seemed more like a fable than events naturally unfolding. Yet I read it through almost in one sitting, captivated by the characters. I finished it full of admiration for Morrison for trying something new, something so challenging, at this point in her career. I went back to look at how she created all these subtly different voices while at the same time maintaining a consistent narrative tone: a remarkable accomplishment. Read it for the story, and then admire the risk-taking and the mastery.

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