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Song of Solomon (Vintage International) Reprint Edition, Kindle Edition
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|Length: 354 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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“Stunningly beautiful. . . . Full of magnificent people. . . . They are still haunting my house. I suspect they will be with me forever.” —Anne Tyler, The Washington Post
“If Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man went underground, Toni Morrison’s Milkman flies.” —John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review
“It places Toni Morrison in the front rank of contemporary American writers. She has written a novel that will endure.” —The Washington Post
“Lovely. . . . A delight, full of lyrical variety and allusiveness. . . . [An] exceptionally diverse novel.” —The Atlantic Monthly
“Morrison is a terrific storyteller. . . . Her writing evokes the joyful richness of life.” —Newsday
“Morrison dazzles. . . . She creates a black community strangely unto itself yet never out of touch with the white world. . . . With an ear as sharp as glass she has listened to the music of black talk and uses it as a palette knife to create black lives and to provide some of the best fictional dialogue around today.” —The Nation
“A marvelous novel, the most moving I have read in ten years of reviewing.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
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“A fine novel exuberantly constructed. . . . So...
From the Back Cover
--Charles R. Larson, Washington Post
"Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wide, spacious novel, [a novel with] the rare plain power to speak wisdom to other human beings."
--Reynolds Price, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review
"The best novel of the black experience in America since Invisible Man...It is beautiful, funny, enormously moving...From the opening pages, I sat bolt upright, aware that I was in the presence of a major talent."
"Wonderful...A triumph...It belongs in the small company of special books that are a privilege to review...It builds, out of history and language and myth, to music."
--John Leonard, The New York Times --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
- File size : 1597 KB
- Publication date : July 24, 2007
- Print length : 354 pages
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Publisher : Vintage; Reprint edition (July 24, 2007)
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Language: : English
- ASIN : B000RMT40I
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #18,052 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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But the Kindle edition is full of inexcusable mistakes. I'm around 150 pages into it and have already found too many. The most egregious so far appears on page 154 (location 2723), where Guitar says to Milkman, "I suppose you know that white people from time to time, and most folks shake their heads and say, 'Eh, eh, eh, ain't that a shame?'" Well, as it turns out, the sentence ought to read "I suppose you know that white people KILL BLACK PEOPLE from time to time. . . ." (my emphasis).
This kind of sloppiness is inexcusable. I wouldn't buy this edition until you learn that it's been corrected. How you're supposed to know so is perhaps murky. Just buy the print edition.
[NOTE: This review may contain plot spoilers.]
’Song of Solomon’ (1977) is Toni Morrison’s third novel, and it’s the one that put her on the literary map, winning the National Book Critics award, getting chosen for Oprah’s book club, and inspiring at least two collections of critical essays and the name of a punk-rock band. Written following the death of Morrison’s father, it is her first book to feature male leading characters. The first part of the book is set in an unnamed city in Michigan. The part of the city called ‘Southside’ - i.e. away from the desirable lakefront property to the north - is implied to be the black neighborhood. (The geography is somewhat ambiguous, as some of the landmarks named in Chapter 1 are consistent with Morrison’s native Ohio.) And like Pecola Breedlove in ‘The Bluest Eye’, its chief protagonist, Milkman Dead, is born in the same year as Morrison herself - in fact, one day after TM’s own birth date. The main action of the story takes place in September 1963, in the days following the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
‘Song of Solomon’ is a family drama; unlike its predecessors, all of the principal characters of ‘Song of Solomon’ - with the seeming exception of Guitar Bains - are connected with a single family, the Dead family, by blood or marriage.
Macon III “Milkman” Dead has problems. To begin with, well, there’s that nickname. He’s not sure how he got it, and he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to know. His father, the elder Macon, doesn’t know either, but thinks it sounds “dirty, intimate, and hot”, and correctly suspects that it has some connection to Milkman’s mother, Ruth. Enough said, then.
His girlfriend (who’s also his cousin, NTTAWWT) is hot, but clingy. When he dumps her (in a note, with which he thoughtfully includes a tip) she goes all crazy and tries to kill him. And his best friend has fallen in with some rather strange characters. Things just don’t seem to be going his way. So when he gets word of a lost family fortune - a bag of gold buried somewhere in Virginia - Milkman sees his chance to leave home in search of freedom.
The story centers around the legacy of the first Macon Dead, who was murdered by racists for the Virginia farm he had worked so hard to build. His two orphaned children (their mother died in childbirth), Pilate and the second Macon Dead (Milkman’s future father) escape. The brother and sister remain close until a dispute over their inheritance - a bag of gold, illegal to possess in the early 1930s - leads to their parting.
By 1963, Macon II has raised three children, and has achieved financial success, and a measure of power in the black community, on his own. His two daughters, now both over 40, remain unmarried and still live at home with their much younger brother. Macon still harbors hatred toward Pilate (lifelong sibling grudges are never pretty) and rules his house with an iron fist. Milkman’s first meeting with his aunt Pilate - against Macon’s strict orders - led to his passionate romantic involvement with Pilate’s granddaughter and his friendship with Guitar, both of whom are a few years older than Milkman himself.
Guitar Bains will play a central role in the story, and yet we are given remarkably little detail about his background. We learn that he lost his father at the age of 4 to a sawmill accident (which, in a grotesque detail, severed his body in half along the sagittal plane), and that he acquired a lifelong aversion to sweets when the mill owner callously handed out candies at his father’s funeral. Eventually, Guitar will fall in with a group known as the Seven Days, whose other members include Robert B. Smith (whose suicide begins the book) and Porter (whose clandestine affair with Milkman’s sister Corinthians is cut short after Milkman blows the whistle to Macon). The Seven Days are dedicated to avenging white violence against blacks, and the Birmingham killings give new urgency to their need for operational funds.
It is hinted (pp. 32 - 33) that Macon Dead enjoyed extramarital liaisons with “a slack or lonely female tenant” prior to Milkman’s birth; these encounters could have included Guitar’s mother prior to her disappearance (p. 21). If that’s the case, then it is not impossible that Macon is in fact the natural father of Guitar. This would make Milkman and Guitar brothers, for as Reba pointedly observes (p. 44), siblings may share a single parent. If, as Pilate asserts to Milkman’s confusion (p. 38), there are “three Deads alive”, this would make Guitar the third Dead, and the reference to the two as “brother[s]” at the end of the book is not a figure of speech.
Milkman and Guitar have different visions of life, and this is clearly shown by their different visions of what the gold will bring them: Milkman sees wealth as the ticket to comfort, independence, and a life away from his family and home; Guitar sees the gold as a means to further the goals of the Seven Days.
Milkman’s struggle began before his birth. When Ruth’s father, Dr. Foster, took ill, Macon murdered his father-in-law by destroying his medicine; Lena and Corinthians were toddlers at the time. Ruth and Macon stopped having marital relations after that, but as the years passed, Ruth, desperate for affection and for a third child, went to Macons sister Pilate - a healer - for help. In short order, the youngest Macon Dead, “Milkman”, was conceived.
When he learned of his wife’s pregnancy, the enraged Macon tried to force Ruth to abort her child, resorting to various strategies including knitting needles. But these attempts failed, and Milkman came into the world alive. It’s possible that a subconscious, prenatal memory of those knitting needles informs the wording of Milkman’s obscene suggestion to Hagar (p. 130) regarding the knife she is holding.
One of the themes running through ‘Song of Solomon’ is the debilitating effect of a life of ease and comfort. The city-bred Milkman is at a distinct disadvantage in both the physical and the human terrain of rural Virginia. Corinthians, whose elite education rendered her “unfit for work” and alienated most of the eligible black men in the community, is destroyed when her desperate affair with Porter is put to an end. And from the ghostlike figure of Circe we learn that Mrs. Butler, the white lady who inherited the stolen Macon Dead property, took her own life when the money ran out - preferring death to the menial work of keeping up the estate.
The shadowy, driven figure of Guitar accompanies Milkman throughout the book, as friend, confidant, mentor, and finally assassin. The novel’s narrative POV is tightly focused on Milkman, and Guitar appears only twice in Milkman’s absence: first, as one of the unnamed children at #3 Fifteenth Street (then being cared for by their grandmother, Mrs. Bains, following the mother’s recent abandonment - p. 21), and again in Chapter 13, where he attempts to comfort Hagar after her rejection by Milkman.
Guitar’s early rejection of sweets sets the pattern for his response to violence and oppression. From the beginning, he is motivated by a sense of purpose and despises material comforts. At an early age, he internalizes his grandmother’s declaration that “a n****r in business is a terrible thing to see” (p. 22) - a reference to Macon Dead, and to the power that Macon holds over her and much of the community as a property owner. Later, Guitar makes it clear to Milkman that he is willing to overlook, but not to forget, the “sins” of Milkman’s father (p. 57, p. 102).
Guitar repeatedly chides Milkman for being naive about white racism (pp. 82 - 88) and for generally lacking seriousness (p. 104). So it’s not too surprising when we learn about his induction into the Seven Days, a group dedicated to violent reprisals against whites:
<i>‘But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites, and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him in a similar manner if they can.’</i>
Joining the Seven Days gives Guitar the sense of meaning and purpose he craves. (In another place and time, it’s not difficult to imagine him joining a jihadist group.) He adopts a more disciplined, spartan lifestyle, giving up drinking and smoking. He must turn himself into an efficient killing machine.
And yet it’s Guitar who offers words of wisdom and comfort to the devastated Hagar (p. 306). Always more of a loner by nature than Milkman, he understands that “you can’t own a human being” and he understands the dangers of overly-enmeshed love. He also understands that Hagar is profoundly unlike her mother and her grandmother (both single mothers) and that being raised without the extended family of “a chous of mamas, grandmamas, aunts, cousins … and what all to give her the strength life demanded of her” has taken a terrible toll on her.
Of Guitar’s love life we are told very little; he seems to find the solitary lifestyle of the Seven Days congenial. Only on p. 307 is there a hint of a romance in his past:
<i>“But I did latch on. Once. … But I never wanted to kill her. Him, yeah. But not her.”</i>
Anyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family should read ‘Song of Solomon’. Milkman’s struggle for independence from his own smothering family of origin is also his journey towards the discovery of his larger family and heritage. In struggling with his parents (sometimes literally), he comes to understand their world and the forces that shaped them, and he learns to accept them for who they are, with their faults and their strengths.
In his relationship with Guitar, Milkman is forced to confront his own lack of purpose. In tramping through the swamps and hunting with the black rednecks of Virginia, he confronts his own weakness and pettiness. Having set out to find gold, Milkman ends up losing gold instead (his gold watch, p. 325), and so, like Frodo, finds that his purpose was to lose a treasure and not to find one.
‘Song of Solomon’ ends (as will Morrison’s 10th novel, ‘Home’) with a reburial - and the final showdown between Guitar and Milkman, which costs Pilate her life. What he gains instead is the capacity to sacrifice, and the readiness to sacrifice even his own life itself. Having discovered the wonderful secret of his family - the legend of the flying African children - he chooses, not to escape, but to struggle for life itself with his brother.
Milkman Dead – yes, that’s his real name – is confronted by a world in which everything seems like a paradox. His grandfather jumped out of a window on the day he was born. His relatives are named after randomly chosen words out of the Bible (Corinthians, Magdalene/Lena, and Pilate, of all things). His family name is Dead, and his given name (Macon) is shared by his father. Everything is out of order and a seeming contradiction.
However, Milkman never strays far from his home environs. He is a black man living in Michigan in the early twentieth century. He has few, if any, friends because none of them understand his relative wealth. He is held hostage and imprisoned away from the world in this weird bubble of life.
Fortunately, as this story evolves, Milkman comes closer to understanding who he is, who his family is, and what makes the real world work. He becomes alienated from his past and for the first time, embraces what an emancipated, enlightened life looks like.
The action in this book grows and grows all the way to the last sentence. It helped to win Morrison a Nobel in Literature. Any reader who spends the couch change to buy this book and the hours necessary to make sense of the piece will be bountifully rewarded by understanding herself or himself better as they embark on the journey with Milkman.
Top reviews from other countries
Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.
The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never with the power of some of the prose in Beloved in my view. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.
Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.
The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.
I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it. I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?
And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel??
Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the history of slavery and racism and its resonating, brutalising impact; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.
To do the book a disservice, and to boil it down to the simplest essence, it is the story of the quest of one man to discover the history of his grandparents and great grandparents. This is, however, no linear quest, the story is told episodically, with author the author wandering through a plethora of different themes - of the human condition, the African American experience, gender politics, revenge vs forgiveness, etc etc. Just to step one level away from the quest for knowledge, Song of Solomon is more fundamentally about a search for identity.
Milkman (real name Macon) Dead is the son of an affluent slum landlord, also called Macon Dead. His is a thoroughly dysfunctional family. His parents fight a continuous psychological war. His sisters Magdalena (called Lena) and First Corinthians have been expensively educated to the point where they can't find a role in a class and race riven society. In seeking to escape this, Macon strikes up friendships with Guitar, firmly from the "other side of the tracks" and with his father's estranged sister Pilate. Unlike her brother, she is joyously unrespectable, living a sensuous life with no materialistic motivations.
Macon lives a pretty feckless existence, one in which the seven deadly sins appear close to being a blueprint for his life, but it is one of these, greed, and a hunt for mythical gold which sets him off on his life changing journey.
Probably the strongest theme and image of the book is that of flight, but it is a highly ambiguous metaphor. Right from the start to the end there is the question of whether It is a symbol of power and escape or of self delusion and suicide. What is more, it is also at the centre of the book's gender politics, as male characters, Milkman included, carelessly abandon women in their flights to freedom. While I empathised with Milkman's search for his identity, he is also, possibly until a revelation towards the end, an extremely unsympathetic portrait of maleness. In one telling section in the centre of the book, young maleness is typified as being a combination of shallow flippancy and reckless thrill seeking.
Naming also plays a vital part in the imagery of a Song of Solomon. Alongside flight, the search of African Americans for their true names rather than those given by white slavers is crucial to the plot. indeed it could be argued that Milkman is dead until he learns the true identities of his grandparents through a children's naming rhyme.
This is absolutely an African American novel with white America appearing only intermittently in the background as a broadly malign entity, excluding and guiltlessly murdering African Americans. White liberals take a bit of a kicking in the character of a middle class poet who glories in Lena's education while employing her as a maid. The darker side of racial politics is embodied in Guitar, who joins a low level terrorist group and whose presence in the novel asks questions about what is the proper response to omnipresent and occasionally violent oppression. Milkman and Guitar's greed which damages their friendship is symbolised by the bling (to use more modern slang) of a white peacock.
In addressing issues of race, Morrison doesn't portray African American society in any idealised way. She writes of a very human society troubled with sexism, snobbery, jealousy, violence and any number of flaws and vices one could care to name. In fact, another way of looking at Song of Solomon is as a book of contrasts, black v white, male vs female, materialistic vs emotional, aspirational vs nurturing, forgiving vs revenge, responsibility vs freedom.
After flight and naming, the third dominant image was for me that of circularity and repetition with characters right through the four generations of the book making the same mistakes in their search for freedom. This takes its strongest form in the heartbreaking deaths of two of the main female characters which directly mirror events three and four generations earlier.
So, I could go on talking about this marvellous book, finding more and more in it, but perhaps I should finish just by saying - it's wonderful, read it.
Macon Dead, named after his father and grandfather, survives numerous attempts to his life, which begin while he is still in the womb. When he leaves home in search of gold he finds and loses something far more precious - his people.
Song of Solomon is an enchanting and beautifully told story. A well deserved classic of 20th century literature.
I can't really add anything to the numerous reviews of this book, other than to say it is well worth a read. Beautiful, evocative writing sets this sweeping novel apart. I didn't like the central character Milkman (I preferred the women characters to the men characters throughout) but this didn't distract from the thought-proking, informative read.
A must Read book......