Another novel by Toni Morrison that I love. It was a re-read for me, but I had forgotten most of the details and forgotten how good it is. So happy to have read it again. It’s great. Of Morrison’s novels I’ve read this year (all of them rereads) it’s currently my favourite:
- Song of Solomon
- The Bluest Eye
They are all great and I recommend all of them. My review of Song of Solomon contains spoilers, so I’m putting the rest of the post under the cut. Don’t read on, if you don’t wish to be spoilered.
The novel is like a jigsaw puzzle. You get pieces of the character’s stories throughout the novel and in the end, they fit together like a detailed painting. This is similar to Sula and The Bluest Eye. The main plot around Milkman is told chronologically, but there are a lot of flashbacks to the history of the other characters.
Song of Solomon is the story of Macon Dead, the third of that name, called Milkman. It’s divided into two parts. The first part is about Milkman’s life until his early thirties. He lives a fairly aimless life, growing up as the pet of his mother and working in his father’s business because he slides into it. His mother and father are well-off African Americans living in a town on the shore of Lake Superior. His mother, Ruth Foster, was the daughter of the first black physician in the town. His father, Macon Dead, is a landlord owning lots of houses. The two are estranged and torment each other. There are also Magdalena and First Corinthians, his sisters, who are older than Milkman and find it difficult to live their own lives. They are trapped in their genteel existence. His mother and father respectively try to alienate him from each other. They tell different versions of why they can’t stand each other, mostly hinging on Ruth’s relationship with her late father, the doctor.
Then there’s his childhood friend Guitar, who later becomes a member of a secret society, the Seven Days men, who avenge the murder of African Americans by whites by murdering the same number of white people. Guitar seems to want to pull Milkman into this conspiracy.
His aunt Pilate Dead, his father’s (also estranged) sister, has a daughter Reba and a granddaughter Hagar with whom Milkman has a long affair that he callously breaks off. Pilate tells Milkman stories of her childhood; how she and her brother grew up on a farm and witnessed their father being shot by whites who stole their farm. Their mother, Sing, had already died at Pilate’s birth. Pilate is special because she has no navel (which may symbolize her lost connection to her family history). Pilate has a heavy green sack hanging in one of the rooms of her house which, as Milkman is told by his father, contains gold. Milkman teams up with Guitar to steal the gold (something he is later ashamed of), but it turns out that the sack only contains human bones. Guitar wanted the gold to finance the Seven Days.
The second part of the novel is about Milkman’s quest to find the gold, which he thinks (backed by his father) might still be lying in the cave that Macon and Pilate hid in after their father’s murder. The cave also held an old man, a prospector, whom they killed in a panic because they thought he would kill them (or lead their father’s murderers to them).
But this quest to find the gold soon turns into a quest to dig up the history of his family, of Macon (his father) and Pilate. He finds out that his great-grandfather was called Shalimar (or Solomon), had 21 children of which the youngest was called Jake. His great-grandmother was called Ryna. They lived in Virginia and Solomon lives on in myth as the “flying African”. He jumped off a rock (Solomon’s Leap) and flew back to Africa, dropping his son Jake on the way and leaving Ryna, who turned mad from grief. Jake is found by the native American Heddy Byrd, who brings him up with her daughter Sing (Singing Bird). Jake and Sing later leave the place and before leaving, Jake’s name is changed to Macon Dead by the drunk white registrar. This is Macon I. Macon and Sing move to Pennsylvania, where they build a successful farm that leads Macon’s death through the greed of the white Butler family. Milkman learns that Macon I was a pillar of the farming community and that his own father (Macon II) was proud to work the farm with him. The trauma of losing his father probably caused him to turn into the person Milkman knows him as – money-loving and controlling.
So, Milkman finds the history of his family, but doesn’t find any gold, which turns Guitar suspicious (he thinks Milkman kept the gold for himself). Milkman returns to his family in Michigan and tells them of his findings. This doesn’t lead to much of a change in their family relations, but nevertheless there is a kind of closure. But Milkman has grown though these revelations about his family. He starts taking responsibility for his actions and turns away from the idea of revenge, as personified in Guitar. Milkman had also found out that the bones in Pilate’s sack are the bones of her father, and they both return to Virginia to bury them at Solomon’s Leap. However, Guitar is after Milkman to kill him for stealing the gold (and perhaps for betraying the ideology of the Seven Days men). Guitar shoots Pilate as they bury her father and the novel ends with Milkman launching himself off Solomon’s Leap at Guitar.
The trope of flying frames the novel. It starts with Robert Smith launching himself off the roof of the hospital the day before Milkman is born and ends with Milkman throwing himself at Guitar. And there’s Shalimar, Milkman’s ancestor, who is said to have flown off to Africa. “Flying” is used in the sense of flying through the air and in the sense of flying from something. It has the association of being free, like a bird. But there’s also the sense of flying from life into death. Nobody knows anymore what really happened to Shalimar, but it could well be that he threw himself off Solomon’s Leap to find freedom from slavery in death. His fellow slaves turned this act into the hopeful myth of him flying back to Africa. That would also fit in with Ryna’s grief at his loss. Robert Smith, it turns out, may have used his ill-fated flight to flee from his role as one of the Seven Days men. Milkman surrenders his life to the air in a bid to win his life from Guitar. Milkman turns to life in contrast to Guitar, who has already turned to death.
When you consider the title of the novel Song of Solomon, you are also pointed toward the book of the bible of that name. It’s about rejoicing in sexual intimacy, which is also something that Milkman is incapable of with Hagar, so that he cruelly breaks up with her, which leads to her death. Toward the end of the novel, Milkman is able to have a joyful, reciprocal sexual encounter with the woman Sweet, and he acknowledges his responsibility for Hagar’s death (which mirrors that of Ryna, her great-great grandmother).
Another main idea shown in the novel is the idea that names are important (Pilate, for instance, carries her name on a piece of paper in a tiny metal box as an earring). If you know your name and your history, you have a solid basis on which you can build up your own life. When Milkman learns the names of his ancestors and their story, he understands why the living members of his family are the way they are. This helps him to define who he is himself; he’s no longer confused or disgusted by the incomplete stories his parents or Pilate told him. He’s able to take responsibility for his own life and deeds.
The novel is very rich, with a lot of other ideas. It’s like a detailed tapestry, the more you look at it, the more you find. I highly recommend it.