This novel by Toni Morrison is set in “the Bottom,” a part of the town of Medallion actually situated in the hills above the town. African American people where swindled with land located there instead of receiving fertile land at the real bottom of the valley.
I loved this novel (as I do any novel of Morrison’s that I’ve ever read) and very much recommend it. My review is under the cut, as it contains spoilers.
The novel is divided into two parts, with chapters describing the events that happened in certain years, in an episodic narrative. The first part covers the years 1919 to 1927, with a gap between 1923 and 1927.
The first part starts with the story of Shadrack, a young black soldier who returns shell-shocked from WWI and in 1920 starts the custom of doing a suicide day parade on the third of January in order to keep his own suicidal thought contained for the rest of the year. Nobody ever takes part in his parades (except to mock him).
It recounts the childhood and teenage years of Nel and Sula, two girls from the Bottom, who are the main protagonist of the novel and tells the stories of their families, with a focus on the women. Nel is the daughter of Helene, who is the daughter of a prostitute from New Orleans. Helene keeps this a secret and assumes the role of a conservative, respected member of the Black community. But she and her daughter experience on a train-ride to visit to her great-grandmother in New Orleans that Helene’s status is worthless out in the world, where she is seen as just another Black woman to be kept in her place in segregated America.
Nel later becomes best friends with Sula, who has a very different background. Sula’s grandmother Eva has a boarding house and seems to live off the proceeds of compensation she was granted for a missing leg (this is a rumour in the community, as nobody knows how she lost her leg). Her mother Hannah sleeps with all the men she feels like (although it doesn’t seem that she is paid for it). Men love her, women dislike her. Sula herself is a very intense person, very invested in her friendship with Nel.
During their childhood, death plays a large part. Eva pours kerosene on her drug-addict son Plum and burns him to death, because she can’t bear his addiction. Her daughter Hannah suspects this and is later also burned to death in a freak accident, which Sula witnesses, without doing anything to help, while Eva tries her best to save Hannah.
Before Hannah’s death, Nel and Sula cause the death by drowning of a young boy called Chicken Little. Nel considers herself innocent of any fault, because Sula was the one who accidentally dropped the boy into the river, but both children stood by, didn’t help in any way, and never told.
The first part ends with Nel’s marriage and Sula’s disappearance from the Bottom.
The second part of the novel covers the years 1937 to 1965, with a gap between 1941 and 1965.
It starts ten years later with Sula’s return to the Bottom. She has her grandmother Eva committed into an old-persons home (cheap and badly run), because she is afraid of her. She also steals her monthly payments (23 dollars) and lives off them in Eva’s house. Apparently, she was at college part of the time she was away. At first, Nel is happy about Sula’s return, but Sula has affairs with many men, including Nel’s husband. This causes a rift between the two, although Sula thought that it should not matter, because their friendship should be more important than any man. Sula is ostracized in the community, when the men spread a rumour that she also sleeps with white men. Later she dies, after one last meeting with Nel.
After Sula’s death, there’s an extraordinarily cold winter and when Shadrack’s suicide day comes around again, for once the people of the Bottom join his parade. The parade turns into a kind of riot where the people destroy the tunnel that was being built beneath the river. They had hoped for and expected jobs at this building project, which never materialized (they are all given to white men) – this act of desperation causes many of the participants to drown when the building site is flooded. Tragically, Shadrack had not even wanted to hold the parade that day, as he had realized the futility of it.
The last chapter plays in 1965. Nel is an old woman, who visits Eva in the new old folks’ home. Eva accuses her of having watched Chicken Little drown without doing anything to save him – she was just as culpable as Sula. This is a truth that Nel had hidden from herself her entire life since that day.
A prominent theme in the novel is the roles open to women in society (especially black women). This is specifically discussed in the chapter where Sula, on her deathbed, sees Nel for the last time.
Nel says to her: “You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don’t.”
Sula tried to live an independent life, but it made her a pariah. She did not have any outlet for her creativity, because a woman (especially a black woman) had only the option of marriage, motherhood, menial jobs for white people or prostitution.
Motherhood, as the quintessential role for women, can also warp the soul: Eva, who insist that she sacrificed much for love of her children, kills her own son, instead of letting him live his own life as a drug addict. But no hardship borne for one’s children can guarantee any kind of reward, as Sula says to Nel: “Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.”
Of the two main characters, Sula and Nel, Sula is the one who grapples with society’s expectations of black women. She clearly sees the constraints society places on black women and chooses to go her own way. She says to Nel: “I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.”
The novel also shows the racism rampant in American society at that time. The callousness of the white people when they find the drowned Chicken Little. The segregation and abuse in all areas of life, for example on trains (Nel’s and Helene’s trip to New Orleans) and in hospitals (Shadrack’s and Hannah’s experience). The missing work opportunities – where the white people of Medallion leave only the worst jobs for the black workers. The ostracism of Sula by her black neighbours when it’s said that she slept with white men: “They insisted that all unions between white men and black women be rape; for a black woman to be willing was literally unthinkable. In that way, they regarded integration with precisely the same venom that white people did.”
The novel ends right when Nel realizes that all along she has been missing Sula: “We was girls together”.
The novel is short, but very intense showing life in The Bottom full of colour and vibrancy. Hopes raised and dashed, loves and hates, natural disasters, seasonal changes, strange inexplicable occurrences, strange doings by the characters (what’s up with the Deweys?) all the ups and downs that make up life. I highly recommend it.