Filled with imagery and symbolism from the Bible, this magisterial novel also draws on the epic tradition, tracing the roots of four generations of an African-American family as they fight a series of battles--against the legacy of slavery and racism, the loss of cultural values and roots, the trauma of injustice, and the self-centeredness resulting from economic success. For all its elegance of development and seriousness of purpose, however, this 1977 novel by Toni Morrison is decidedly earthy, filled with unusual characters and exciting, often sensuous, stories about a family descended from Solomon, a freed slave who, according to legend, flew on his own wings back to Africa, leaving his wife and twenty-one children behind.
The male protagonist, Milkman Dead, is the arrogant son of a wealthy slumlord. His aunt Pilate, a poor woman whose life is filled with love, is so vibrant a contrast and so dominating a force in the family, however, that she becomes the fulcrum upon which the action turns. Milkman's selfishness vs. Pilate's compassion, his desire to escape from the family vs. her need to remember its stories and its past, his love-'em-and-leave-'em attitude toward women vs. her generosity of spirit ("If I'd-a knowed more people, I'd-a loved more," she says)--parallel the tensions which seize every generation of this family.
The novel develops impressionistically, not chronologically, as stories about characters from four generations unfold, seemingly at random. The relationships of all these characters, along with the time line in which they live, evolve only gradually. When Milkman's father, Macon Dead, Jr., tells him the story about how he, accompanied by his sister Pilate, killed a man in a cave and then discovered many bags of the man's gold, Milkman begins the journey which will lead to his discovery of who he is and what gives real meaning to life. In an effort to find the missing gold, he travels to the farm where earlier generations of the family lived, discovering, in the process, the missing links in the family's chain of memories.
Racism is a pervading theme, from the flight of Solomon to the execution of Macon Dead on his own land, and, in the 1960s, the formation of The Seven Days, a vigilante group that kills whites in direct proportion to the number of blacks killed and left unavenged. The novel is primarily about an arrogant young man's self-discovery, however, and the importance of being connected. Lyrical, richly descriptive, powerfully dramatic, and filled with symbols and motifs that connect Milkman in universal ways to the Bible and to the earliest epics, this is Toni Morrison at her best. Mary Whipple