**spoiler alert** Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, this tale focuses on Sethe, a young salve who escaped to Ohio to join her mother-i**spoiler alert** Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, this tale focuses on Sethe, a young salve who escaped to Ohio to join her mother-in-law (although her marriage to Halle was not legally binding) and her three other children, and the young daughter named Denver that Sethe was pregnant with during her escape.
Eighteen years after her arrival in Ohio, she and her youngest daughter, Denver, live together in the house at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati that is haunted by Sethe’s two-year-old daughter. The unnamed daughter is referred to as ‘Beloved’ after her death because that was the only word from the preacher’s sermon at her daughter’s funeral and the only word the funeral home would carve into the stone in exchange for sex.
The death of Beloved has marked every aspect of Denver’s life isolating her from the community at large, especially after her brothers, Howard and Buglar, escaped from the house and her grandmother, Baby Suggs, passed away. Largely housebound, Denver is unprepared for the arrival of two new people in their lives: Paul D, a former slave who knew her mother from their time together at Sweet Home, and a young woman who calls herself Beloved.
“Beloved. You are my sister. You are my daughter. You are my face; you are me. I have found you again; you have come back to me. You are my Beloved. You are mine.” (pg. 255)
Paul D is able to chase the spirit of Sethe’s eldest daughter from the home allowing Denver to finally leave the house at 124 Bluestone Road, but the supernatural presence returns when Beloved arrives and charms Sethe and Denver with her presence. As Paul D grows closer to Sethe and warier of Beloved’s presence, the black community of Cincinnati informs Paul D of how Sethe’s daughter died, of how Sethe tried to murder all four of her children in order to keep them from being returned to their owner at Sweet Home. Horrified, Paul D leaves the home allowing Sethe to become lost to the idea that the young woman named Beloved to actually her daughter returned to her at the expense of both herself and Denver.
In her preface, Morrison says she was inspired to write this book after reading an old newspaper article about an escape slave who murdered her child to prevent the her child from being returned to their owner under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required people living in “free states” to return all runaways to slavery. She explains both in the preface and in the text how slavery fractured familial relationships, how it left women like Sethe with few options to keep themselves and their families together.
Going into the story with this particular idea in mind did ruin Paul’s revelation of what Sethe did, but it also allowed me to see the forest amongst the trees, so to say. I could have easily become bogged down in Morrison’s prose, in the magical realism (which is rarely to my own taste), and in sudden shift to stream of consciousness more than halfway into the story. But I also knew I should be focusing on the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, on the guilt that accompanies hindsight, and on the everlasting mark of both slavery and murder.
On those three points, I adored this book for what it had to say. Slavery and murder are despicable evils in this world, but given the choice between the two – given the only choice one has – how can Sethe choose life in slavery over murder? She knew what that life would be like – how it would deprive her children of a family or the right to marry, how it cause them immense pain and suffering, how her daughters would be expected to bare children with a man chosen for them knowing they would be unlikely to see those children grow up.
We see the loss of her child haunt her after the fact in part because she and her three remaining children were allowed to remain free, but her actions cost the life of her beloved daughter and, eventually, the right to be in the lives of her sons. Yet she does not feel guilty about what she did even telling Paul D point blank that she cannot be faulted for “trying to put my babies where they would be safe”. She had already lost her husband, who failed to show up when it was time for them to escape from Sweet Home together, and she had already been brutalized by her new master, who had forcibly taken her milk from her that she had been trying to save for the unnamed infant upon their reunification.
And, of course, her decision cost her remaining daughter a happy and productive life as a member of Cincinnati society. Denver is an outcast because of what her mother did. She is forgotten by her brothers in their attempt to escape their mother and the haunted house, and her grandmother spent most of her remaining years keeping Denver close in order to prevent her mother from having the opportunity to kill her like she did Beloved. She never really has the freedom her mother was trying to afford to her, which is a tragedy in its own right.
I still cannot claim to be a fan of Toni Morrison’s writing, but I can say that I am a fan of what this book has to say and the viewpoint it offers to its readers. (Although, I admit that “fan” is a rather awful word to use in connection to the horrific tale told in this novel.) Another book I’m glad I added to my Classics Club list as I would not have picked it up otherwise....more
Nina Revskaya, an eighty-year-old former acclaimed ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, has decided to sell her jewelry collection –Nina Revskaya, an eighty-year-old former acclaimed ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, has decided to sell her jewelry collection – unique for both its contents and its origins in Soviet Russia – in an auction to benefit the Boston Ballet Foundation. Since her retirement from the Boston Ballet, Nina has largely become a recluse in her Back Bay brownstone interacting with only two chosen friends infrequently and with her nurse on a daily basis. Nina is uninterested in sharing the story of her jewelry and refuses to expand upon her largely yes-or-no answers to questions posed to her by Drew Brooks, an associate from the auction house tasked with creating a book on the jewels included in the sale.
The unsolicited arrival of an amber necklace believed to match the amber set owned by Nina offers Drew an alternative source for answers. Yet Grigori Solodin, a professor and translator of poems written by Nina’s deceased husband at a local Boston office, is just as clueless about the source of the amber necklace in his possession and hopes Drew or, better yet, Nina herself can help fill in the holes of his own personal history.
I purchased this book at the library used book sale because of four words on the back cover: Boston, Stalinist Russia, and ballet. The cover evokes a melancholy, dreamy feeling, which is part of why I was drawn to the book in the first place, but I also seem to be reading a slew of books lately featuring faceless women on the cover. The faceless theme works in this case as much of the book is spent exploring who the real Nina Revskaya is – the person defined by the past she has tried to ignore for so long – and how exactly a favored ballerina in Soviet Russia came to defect one night in Paris nearly fifty years ago.
Central to Nina’s past are her husband, the poet Viktor Elsin; her childhood friend and fellow ballerina, Vera; and the Jewish composer, Gersh. Oddly enough, these characters felt far more developed than Nina herself, who seems to largely float along from one conflict in Soviet Russia to another. Clearly, Drew is a prop character used to open the door to Nina’s past without much development on her own. The story could have done without her intrusion in the later chapters.
The mention of Grigori’s mere existence exposes the overarching mystery the novel solves, although I did appreciate the red herrings Kalotay throws into the story to try to keep this mystery fresh. And maybe the ending felt a little abrupt given how slowly drawn out the book is, but I’m not sure there needed to be a longer march given how predictable the ending was.
For all its predictability, though, Kalotay’s descriptions of Soviet Russia, of the Back Bay in Boston, of the pain ballerinas are subjected to in order to dance, and of the fear her characters felt throughout of the novel kept me from putting this one aside in favor of something else. A third of the way through this book, I found myself pondering which brownstone exactly could be Nina’s as I walked through the Back Bay late one afternoon. The descriptions add to the slow pace of the novel, but they really helped me connect with the bleakness of the Russian winter and the bleakness of a past a person might be afraid to address in their own age....more
In sixteenth century Venice, Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians and confines all Jews to a squalled ghetto, whichIn sixteenth century Venice, Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians and confines all Jews to a squalled ghetto, which they are forbidden from leaving after nightfall. Late one evening, a wealthy Count arrives with the ghetto’s rabbi in an attempt to solicit the midwifery services of Hannah Levi, a woman renowned throughout the city of Venice for her skill with complicated deliveries. Hannah wants to refuse the request for her help as she fears the edict and the possibility that the Count might decide her secret “birthing spoons” (very crude forceps) were a gift for the Devil.
Yet the outrageous sum of money the Count offers for her services is more than enough of a temptation for Hannah. Her husband, Isaac, was captured at sea and sold to people claiming to be defenders of the Christian faith, and Venice’s rabbinical council has been unable to negotiate for his release. The Count’s payment would allow Hannah to travel to Malta, where her husband is being held, to ransom Isaac before the slave traders and abusive merchants can work him to death.
The first few chapters of this book hold an immense amount of promise setting the stage for a perilous and ethical decision – should Hannah use her God-given gift for midwifery when it could cause her to permanently lose her husband, could put her community in danger, and could cause her to lose her own life? And does she dare use her “birthing spoons” that even her rabbi had qualms about blessing? Rich also provides detailed descriptions of the scenery of sixteenth century Venice, which help to explain the rampant anti-Semitism in this region and highlight how perilous life is during this time for both Jews and women whether they are Christian or not, pregnant or not.
And then the whole story begins to fall apart. Rich repeatedly asserts that the noble family Hannah has been called to assist would also face prosecution if the Papal authority learned they had solicited the services of a Jewish midwife for a Christian mother and child. Yet the family invites her to dine with them in the weeks after the birth breaking social customs and the law, which conveniently provides Rich with the opportunity to plant Hannah right in the middle of a plot to kidnap the newborn child. Her sister, Jessica, is conveniently introduced after Hannah flees the house to provide Hannah with a place of refuge, and their tenuous relationship is quickly explained and patched up in a few pages.
The narrative abruptly shifts to Malta where a cruel man and a nun from the local abbey are in a bidding war over Isaac, which interrupted the suspense of Hannah’s story, and then continues to jump back and forth from Venice to Malta throughout the book. I imagine this was done to show the peril facing both Isaac and Hannah, to show why Hannah was so determined to rescue her husband.
However, other than Hannah learning how her husband refuses to leave her over her barrenness despite the Rabbi’s pressure, there was nothing about the introduction of Isaac to the story that added dimensions to both his characterization and his and Hannah’s relationship. And I ended up largely skimming sections devoted to the subplot of him helping a slave trader with his love affair.
The timeline rang false for this time period. So much of the action occurs in a span of a few days, including the Count sailing away to another city and news of his death from the plague arriving the next day – rather amazing speed given the time period – that the plot begins to feel even more convenient and farfetched. I just could not get over the idea of a woman in 1575 being named Jessica.
And neither, apparently, could the previous owner of this book because they littered the pages of this novel with a bunch of questions marks and attempted to take notes on the plot on the back cover....more
Nonfiction – print. Hill and Wang, 2012. 160 pgs. Library copy. Fetter-Vorm’s graphic novel provides a short introduction the history of the world’s fiNonfiction – print. Hill and Wang, 2012. 160 pgs. Library copy. Fetter-Vorm’s graphic novel provides a short introduction the history of the world’s first atomic bomb(s), which was developed by the United States during the Second World War and dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The bomb was developed in total secrecy – the Manhattan Project was later used as a case study for the CIA – in several locations across the United States including an underground squash court at the University of Chicago, an electric plant at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and a hastily built town at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The groups of scientists at Los Alamos were led by J. Robert Oppenheimer under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Fetter-Vorm focuses much of his book on these two men – how they became involved with the project, how they acted during the project, and how they viewed the project after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.
My knowledge of the development of the atomic bomb is comprised of where (New Mexico in the United States), why (weapon of war), and when (during World War II). The critical piece missing is how, and comics turned out to be the perfect way to illustrate how nuclear fission works and all the reactions required for an atomic explosion to work. Reading a text-only explanation likely would have gone right over my head, but Fetter-Vorm guides his readers through a step-by-step explanation of nuclear fission and the difference between using energy as a source of electric power versus as a weapon of war.
For such a short book, Fetter-Vorm manages to span the entire expanse of the atomic bomb from conception to post-drop reactions. Nearly every American history textbook contains a picture of the bomb’s plume after eruption, which Fetter-Vorm includes in his book, but few include the immediate and delayed impact on the people of both Japan and the United States. The black and white drawing of the half-burnt, little boy looking for water to ease his pain stuck with me long after I finished the book as did the scene he depicts where Oppenheimer meets with U.S. President Harry Truman to inform him that atomic weapons are too evil to ever be used again only from Truman to kick him out of his office and say he never wants to see or hear from Oppenheimer before.
Fetter-Vorm also explains how the Cold War and nuclear proliferation began even before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the British having their own version of the Manhattan Project, the Soviets placing at least one spy at Los Alamos, and Stalin being deeply offended over the way the Americans informed him of their intent to drop the bomb on Japan. But the most surprising facts I learned actually had nothing to do with the atomic bomb. The firebombings of Japanese cities by the Americans produced far more casualties than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined – in fact, the Tokyo firebombing killed more people within six hours than in any equivalent period of time in the entire history of mankind.
So, yes, I’m very glad I stumbled across this graphic nonfiction book at the library. The chemistry primer and history lesson were much needed and much appreciated. ...more
Eighty-five year old Addie Baum recounts her life story to her twenty-two year old granddaughter beginning as a teenager in 1915 and ending with her cEighty-five year old Addie Baum recounts her life story to her twenty-two year old granddaughter beginning as a teenager in 1915 and ending with her current affairs in 1985. The American-born daughter of poor, Jewish immigrants living in Boston’s North End, Addie’s desires to become an independent and educated woman are often spurned by her father and mother. The local Sunday club for young ladies offers Addie the opportunity to take classes in English and spend time with people her own age outside the city at Rockport Lodge, and the eventual marriage of a local shirtwaist factory owner to her older sister (and, later, her oldest sister) affords Addie a job and a means of economic escape.
One thought keep running through my head as I read this book: does any elderly person tell their life story in perfect chronological order without deviations? I once “interviewed” my grandfather for a class about when he learned about the Holocaust and, instead, we ended up a long discussion about how he met my grandmother, his time in Afghanistan, and, finally, his childhood living in the Dust Bowl. Not at all in order. Not at all an answer to my question. I doubt Addie’s perfect recollection and timeline would have bothered me as much as it did had the novel been written in third person, but the first person narrative perfect preservation of suspense as to who she marries and how she escapes her family’s tenement rung false with me.
The novel relies far too much on stereotypes and common archetypes – the aloof father who turns to religion after a painful loss, an immigrant mother who controls her daughters because she is afraid of all the differences between America and her homeland – to really stand out in my mind. Addie appears to chafe against the traditional expectations of her family longing for a more “American” experience, but even those problems are neatly wrapped up with the end of each chapter.
For a novel spanning several decades, I found it odd that major events in American and Boston history, including World War II and the Great Depression, are largely glossed over. Only the flu pandemic of 1918, which admittedly is often forgotten in historical fiction, leaves a lasting mark on this family, but even losses from that event barely linger in the family’s mind as the narrative quickly moves forward.
The reason why I stuck with the novel for so long was not because of a great affection for Addie, but because of my interest in her sister, Celia. The young woman appears to be mentally unstable yet her mother and father still marry her off to a man they don’t entirely approve of with tragic consequences.
Addie tries to link her sister’s suicide to her working as a child laborer in a sweatshop upon arrival in the United States and her eventual husband is a passionate advocate for child labor laws. But this connection is so subjective because Addie never works in a factory (other than as a secretary) so the reader never sees these conditions, never experiences the horrors she suspects her sister went through. There are other novels – the American Girls series for juvenile readers comes to mind – that do a far better job showing how awful child labor in the early twentieth century than this novel does. ...more