Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon. 1977; New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.
The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. (87)
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)
Song of Solomon is a strange, entrancing book. The story takes a little while to get going, but then it soars. After I had read two or three chapters, someone asked me how I liked it. I said that there were some interesting characters, but not much has happened—at least not to the characters the story had focused on.
That would change. By the end, we are privy to a family saga like something out of Faulkner—rich, deep, but askew enough to be Southern gothic at its core. No, many times we do not understand why we do the things we do, but like St. Paul in the above quotation, we know that there is something primal that moves us on.
The tite comes from the Bible, of course. The biblical Song of Solomon (a.k.a. the Song of Songs) is a love song sung by a husband and a wife. It is sexual. Rabbinical tradition said that Jewish men were not allowed to read it until they were thirty.
One of the story’s characters is named First Corinthians. She gets her name from another book of the Bible whose thirteenth chapter is called the Love Chapter. That name and the book’s title suggest an undercurrent of love. It seems as if all the characters are looking for love, but they have a hard time finding it or keeping it. Sometimes it is because they are looking in the wrong place, but mostly it is because they really do not know how to love. Brokenness takes a long time to heal. The question is simply this: Will it ever heal?
Macon “Milkman” Dead III loves and hates his father at the same time. His father is a wealthy landlord, and Milkman becomes his rent collector. He is learning the business. Like most sons, he longs for his father’s love, but Daddy is all business. His father also abuses Milkman’s mother Ruth, the daughter of the first black physician in their unnamed Michigan town.
Milkman learns from his father that land and property are what are important in life. Macon Dead, Sr., Milkman’s grandfather, was a prosperous land-owning farmer in central Pennsylvania after World War I. But, as the above quotation notes, the cards were stacked against him. A wealthy and covetous white landowner shot him and took his property to himself. The legal system sided with the white Butlers (distaff relations to Rhett?) and orphans Macon, Jr., and sister Pilate (yes, that is her name) have little recourse.
Brother and sister live in the same Michigan town now, but they are estranged. Milkman is told by his father to have nothing to do with his Aunt Pilate. As he begins to travel around town on his father’s business, he introduces himself to Pilate, her daughter Reba, and Reba’s daughter Hagar, who is five years older than Milkman.
From the beginning, he finds Hagar attractive, and when he is seventeen, she seduces him. From the age of nineteen to thirty-one he is in a relationship with her. Milkman does not want to marry her because he is unsure if he loves her, and, besides, they are cousins. (If the generations seem a little off, Milkman was not born until his father was forty-two. His two sisters, Lena and First Corinthians, are both a dozen or more years older than he.)
Little things become significant. In her house, Pilate keeps a green canvas bag that she calls her inheritance. Her estranged brother and Milkman’s friend Guitar both think she is hoarding a treasure in the bag. Perhaps in a sense she is, but it is not what they think it is.
Pilate teaches her daughter and granddaughter a folk song that says, “Sugarman, don’t fly away.” On one level we can say, yes, Hagar’s “sugarman” Milkman tries to leave her, to “fly away.” But like many folk songs and nursery rhymes there may be a more literal meaning which became obscured over time and history.
I recall hearing an older version of the sixties’ folk song “Tom Dooley” which has some very direct lines such as: “You killed little Laurie Foster.” Another line says, “If it hadn’t been for Grayson/ I’d ‘a’ been in Tennessee.” Tom Dooley was sentenced to death by hanging for murdering Laurie Foster, apparently turned in or betrayed by someone named Grayson. While there is some known history associated with the song, there is also a certain amount of mystery. That is true of many ballads from the Middle Ages on (think “The Wife’s Lament,” “Sir Patrick Spens,” or “Lord Randall). I have read some mere speculations, for example, about “The Sloop John B.”
It is also true that sometimes we do know something about what caused the ballad to be sung as is true with “Tom Dooley” or “Casey Jones.” What curiosity is the Sugarman song about?
Milkman goes on a quest. Initially he thinks is to find the lost family treasure, but instead he discovers the real family treasure.
He goes to Pennsylvania where he meets some old friends of his father’s who are all delighted Macon Dead has become a success. He also visits the ancient midwife Circe who lives in the Butlers’ abandoned homestead. The last Butler died without an heir, so all the corrupt land-grabbing and deck-stacking was futile.
Without giving too much away, we finally do meet a character named Solomon around page 200. The other names may be significant in various ways, but I do not want to make too big of a deal of it.
Solomon – the fabulously wealthy King of Israel who had 300 wives and 700 concubines and from whom the royal family of Ethiopia claimed descent. The founder of the Solomon clan in the book has 21 children by almost as many women.
Circe – a witch in Homer’s Odyssey. Many American slaves were given names Greek or Latin classical names like Alexander, Cassius, Sylvester, Lucretia, and so on. Free blacks would continue to name children after their ancestors. Morrison’s Circe lives in a remote house with thirty dogs, not unlike the Homeric goddess surrounded by a variety of animals on her lonely island.
Hagar – the Egyptian concubine and slave, eventually cast out by Abraham. So Song of Solomon‘s Hagar is Milkman’s mistress and eventually rejected. The novel’s Hagar is angry and tries several times to murder Milkman unsuccessfully. She is angry but also looking for love and respect, perhaps typifying the way many African-Americans feel about white Americans—they are against us” (see above) and we hate them for that, but at the same time we need respect and love like any other human beings (perhaps even the way some women view men).
Pilate – perhaps the oddest name. No, she does not kill any Christ figure in the story. Her name seems more of a burden than anything. Her father randomly chose the names of both daughters out of the Bible. She freaks people out, including potential boyfriends and husbands because she has no navel. Does she represent Eve? Macon, Jr., calls her a snake, a different character from Eden. But didn’t the man blame the woman?
For what it is worth, I once knew a man who had no navel. Back when I was working as an editor for a scientific newsletter, some of the scientists actually examined him. It turned out that he did have a navel visible in an x-ray, but apparently when he was born his belly skin was sewn over the navel. I share that to note that such things are not entirely unknown in our wide world.
One recurring image in the novel is flight. Milkman is born in 1931 on a day when an insurance agent attempts to fly across the state of Michigan on a set of wings he invented. Of course, it does not work. Man has invented the airplane, the glider, the helicopter, the hot air balloon, the rocket, but he needs some kind of aid to make human flight work.
Trying not give too much away, others (note the Sugarman song) attempt to fly. Milkman does in the last chapter, which also coincides with the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Is there a relationship there? Or is it more personal?
How do we deal with conflict? Murder and anger? Love? Sex? Or do we try to escape, to fly away? Morrison brings a lot together in what becomes a family saga not unlike Faulkner’s Go Down Moses.
A few final notes. I read this because my high school administration suggested I find a book for a college-level American Literature course that was magical realism but did not have profane language like the Tim O’Brien book I had been teaching. This book was not that.
Although there is some talk of ghosts and dreams, I believe this is hard to peg as magical realism in the vein of Marquez or O’Brien. It is more like Wuthering Heights: gothic but rooted in reality.
And, well, if the reader is offended by profanity, this is probably not the book to read. I guess nowadays we call that a trigger warning.
Still Song of Solomon tells us explicitly that even though many blacks did migrate to the North, they brought a Southern understanding and sensibility with them. Morrison may have grown up in Ohio like Philip Roth, but she is much closer to Faulkner, O’Connor, or Percy than to her fellow Ohioan. This will open your eyes.