Title: Song of Solomon
Author: Toni Morrison
Challenge status: Morrison’s National Books Critics Award winning novel, which was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding Morrison the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature is also #25 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #28 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: Several challenges on record (Ohio, Georgia, Florida) in the 90’s relating to racism, sexual themes and generally being “filth”, “trash”, and “inappropriate”. In the 2000s (Michigan), suspended from a curriculum but reinstated as long as parents signed a waiver acknowledging the book’s content. In 2010 was removed from an Indiana school district mid-semester because administrators found the content offensive.
First line: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.
What is most significant about this book to me is not what has made the book controversial to parents and school district administrators, but that the book, written by Toni Morrison (who has traditionally written books about the black experience in America from the female perspective) is written from the point of view of the male main character, Macon “Milkman” Dead III. Typical of a Morrison book, the narrative is driven by many strong female characters who shape Milkman’s life from birth to his death, but I was impressed by the sharpness with which Morrison evolves Milkman from child to adult, and gives him his own voice amongst the strong influences surrounding him.
Now he saw her as a frail woman content to do tiny things; to cultivate small life that would not hurt her if it died: rhododendron, goldfish, dahlias, geraniums, imperial tulips…The rhododendron leaves grew wide and green and when their color was at its deepest and waxiest, they suddenly surrendered it and lapsed into limp yellow hearts. In a way she was jealous of death. – Toni Morrison, “Song of Solomon”
Milkman’s quest is to find out who he is, where he has come from. This forces him to exert his own personality as well as submit to a larger storyline in which he is just one piece of one generation. Relationships he has assumed will stay static do not, facts he has accepted without question about himself and his family end up being hollow folktales, and he must navigate around emerging truths, and choose who he is going to be.
My favorite character is his aunt Pilate, a terrifyingly strong and individualistic woman, a brilliant and bold character. Compared to her many of the other characters lacked depth, and came off as flat.
I am not a fan of how Morrison brings the supernatural into play in her novels – I was a little nervous reading this book actually, given how much I Could Not Stand “Beloved” when I read it in high school. But, as a plot device the ghosts that walk among us was kept to a minimum, and though I hoped for a happier ending at least it ended elegantly.