Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Beloved

I began this blog because I wanted to write about out-of-the-mainstream books I've read. I have finally gotten around to reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. This book has become part of the modern canon, and is hardly obscure, so I'll skip a lengthy plot summary. The novel, in case you aren't familiar with it, is a story of the violence and degradation of slave life and the scars carried by those who labored and suffered under that system long after it ceased to exist as an institution.

Beloved is the story of Sethe and her family, who reach Cincinatti via the Underground Railroad and build a post-war life there, haunted by the past in the form of the child Sethe has murdered rather than submit to a life of slavery. As a story of human sorrow and strength, it could be a story from the Holocaust, from Kosovo or Iraq or any number of the disasters of human degradation that have plagued our history. It is a story about dealing with wrenching loss and humiliation, finding one's way when one has plumbed the depths of despair. It is a cry from those who historically have had no voice at all.

A consertative commentator recently wrote a column trying to explain why slavery "wasn't all bad". The sheer idiocy of making such a statement in the 21st century shows how disconnected we have become from disturbing historical realities. Give him another 25 years, and Michael Medved and his ilk could be the next wave of Holocaust deniers. After all, once the witnesses are gone, we can make up any story we like about the past, can't we?

A novel is not a historical record, but a well written novel can give insights into the human condition and give some voice to those who have not been heard. I don't know the genesis of Ms. Morrison's novel, whether it is based on any known historical incident, but it stands as a voice or an echo from a people who lived and died in a shameful, immoral system that mocked our ideals that "all men are created equal."

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