Tag Archives: Beloved

Celebrating six books I read in 2021

You don’t need reminding that 2021 was not a great year, but ever the Pollyanna I can pick out many great books that I read in the last 12 months. I offer you five posts about them, with a bonus sixth. When choosing these I noticed a bit of a historical theme. Enjoy!

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes

This wonderful novel captures one glorious summer’s day in 1946, in southern England. The ‘long nightmare’ of the Second World War is over but everything is changed. This had direct relevance when I read and blogged about it in July; we were seeing the relaxation of restrictions and worry about the Covid pandemic. 

Laura and her family have been through separation, and now must manage the social and economic changes brought by the war to their world. During a summer’s afternoon she climbs up Barrow Down and finds hope and peace in the landscape below.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1947, reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. 179pp

Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers. 

I enjoyed reading her two novels. Clash (1932) is set during the General Strike of 1926; it captures the heady excitement and drama of political activism.

The Division Bell Mystery is a whodunnit set in the Palace of Westminster, written while she was temporarily out of parliament.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

You can find the post about Ellen Wilkinson’s novels here.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I loved reading this book for all the reasons that fiction is so powerful: it takes you to new places and shows you the world in a new light. I have been to Ethiopia, where this novel is set. The history of the war against the invading Italians is not fiction. But Maaza Mengiste has fictionalised the events, revealing some of the brutality of the failed Italian colonial exercise.

It’s vivid in its retelling of the unequal struggle. The main character is Hirut, an ignorant young girl at the start of the novel, but a proud bodyguard of the Shadow King during the struggle. And this novel is very poignant given the troubles that erupted in Tigray province in November 2020 and have worsened this year.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp. Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize

Beloved by Toni Morrison

I had read this novel before, but in the light of Black Lives Matter and all that has been happening recently in the United States relevant to racism, and in the UK, it seemed to be the right time to reread it. I was struck by the strength of this book in demonstrating the reverberations of evil that spread out from the enslavement of Africans and the trading of enslaved people across the Atlantic. Toni Morrison describes the book as inviting the reader ‘to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts’. 

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

As the title suggests, this is the 4th book in a series. I have read and reviewed them all. I have walked with Refugee Tales. I found myself reading this collection with a mounting sense of outrage. ‘How can we still be here, after 70 years?’ I asked on Bookword Blog. In particular how can we still be detaining people seeking refuge in our country, and detaining them indefinitely. I remain outraged. The stories told in Refugee Tales are not easy and remind us of the human tragedies that are produced by world events.

I was grateful to the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group Autumn newsletter for reprinting my post. Please do not be silent on this issue.

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus published in 2021, by Comma Press. 161pp

More Gallimaufry by the Totnes Library Writers Group

This is the bonus book I mentioned at the top of this piece. For me, much of 2021 has been spent in co-editing a collection of writing by my local writing group. We emerged from lockdowns with a determination to produce our second collection of writing. We have done it and the book is an object of pride, especially to the 21 contributors. I wrote about editing it in the post called More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group

It would take a great deal to limit my reading, whatever the pandemic lands us with. I am looking forward to more in 2022: more Elizabeth Strout, more women in translation, more older women, and more set in the 1940s. I might even get to more writing next year.

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is about slavery, slavery in the US. It is about the terrible things that were done to enslaved people. It is about the damage that was wrought on them before ‘emancipation’ (1863) and after. It is about physical damage, but also economic damage and psychic damage, damage to relationships and to communities. This was lasting harm, for individuals, their descendants and for American society, up to and including today. 

The harm done by slavery disrupts the narration of the story of Sethe and her family. It is mutilated, and so like all readers, like the characters in the story, I had to make some kind of sense from the turbulent events. It starts with the rage that was evident in the present time of the story (1873-4), returning later with the arrival of Beloved. The novel opens in rage:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). (3)

After slavery ended (1873-4):

The novel is set in the time of the so-called reconstruction of the south following the Civil War. Eighteen years earlier Sethe had escaped from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky (oh the irony of the name) over the river to Cincinnati to join her mother-in-law. Slave Catchers arrived to return Sethe to the plantation with her children. She killed her 2 year old child and was prevented from killing the other children. By the time the story starts only the now grown up new-born lives with Sethe: Denver, a recluse.

Things change when Paul D, a former slave also from Sweet Home, arrives at the house. He throws out the baby’s ghost and the three of them settle down to live together. Then another young woman arrives claiming to be Beloved, the name of the murdered child, and more chaos ensues.

I find myself asking how many ways can people be damaged? There is the physical damage. On Sethe’s back are the scars of whippings, which she calls her tree. There is the economic damage. None of the Black characters find it easy to get work. The psychic damage is revealed in Paul D’s case by the tobacco tin, sealed inside are his memories of which he cannot speak. And then there are the wild dreams of Beloved, dreams that evoke the terrors of the Middle Passage and routine rape of female slaves. There is damage to relationships, the most shocking of which is Sethe’s killing of her own baby. 

[Sethe knew] That anybody white would take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful magical best thing – the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work in the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. (295-6)

This is not an easy book to read. But the salvation, such that it is, will come from the community made by the neighbours in Cincinnati who look out for Sethe and her loved ones.

“They don’t know when to stop”: Publication 1987

Toni Morrison in 1998

When this book was published the US had been through yet more difficult times. In the previous decades the KKK still operated, Black children were still being killed in churches, Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated and Civil Rights Acts passed. I am reminded of the last words of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother whose freedom from slavery had been bought by her son’s labour.

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for the occasional request for color she said practically nothing – until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to  Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever. (122-3).

Toni Morrison was influenced by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. In the Foreword to the Vintage edition she says that she had just decided to live off her earnings as a writer and given up her job when the idea of the book came to her:

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. (x)

While collecting material for The Black Book, Toni Morrison had come across the true story of Margaret Garner, who in 1856 killed her own child rather than allow it to return to slavery. She was drawn to this material.

The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellent landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts. (xi)

And she writes of the need to reveal the vocal ghosts, to unsilence their voices and the memories of that awful time.

I hoped … that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. (xiii)

I find these statements powerful and attractive, full of good purpose and her intentions for the novel fulfilled.

The present day

Toni Morrison was born in 1931 and died in August 2019. She had been given countless awards and her writing remains highly regarded.  She wrote 11 novels for adults and some for children. Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997) complete the trilogy begun with Beloved.

Beloved continues to be relevant today. The struggles in the US to accommodate their history continues, evident in both the Black Lives Matter campaign and in the attempted coup by a mob of white-supremacist Americans on the Capitol on 6th January 2021. 

And in the UK we have our own history of slavery and the slave trade to come to terms with. Do we need an equally powerful novel to help us see our history?

My thanks to Dr Kasia Boddy for her lecture on Beloved hosted by Literature Cambridge in January 2021.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

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