Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, and Lorain was the setting of her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1971). Black girls could and did grow up there, envying the patent leather shoes, Kelly green knee socks, velvet coats, and rabbit fur muffs of popular “high yellow” girls with sloe green eyes and long hair. There were other discoveries to be made in that town besides the casual cruelty of light-skinned class mates: a father could rape his daughter.
Sula (1974) was set in Medallion, an imagined place. The black neighborhood up in the hills was known as “the Bottom” because a white farmer once explained to his slave that when God looked down on his land it was the bottom of heaven. There black women endured their fractured lives, accepted or regretted the few choices life gave, tended their memories of good and bad men. One grieving mother torched her junkie son.
Song of Solomon (1977), an ambiguous parable, began in another Mid-western town, complete with right and wrong sides of the track. The novel also visited hamlets fastened along the littleknown roads of rural Pennsylvania and Virginia, through which the harassed protagonist, Milkman Dead, traveled in search of lost treasure, sanctuary from bodily harm, and, well, his roots.
These real and imagined places were close enough to the Ohio River for the people who lived in them to feel the torpor of the South, the nostalgia for its folkways, to sense the old Underground Railroad underfoot like a hidden stream. In these novels one found family homes drawn in loving, excessive detail, ordinary people living out odd lives, in isolated, remote places, sometimes comfortable, sometimes pockets of danger. The rhythm of life in these novels encouraged pages of description and provided earnest but expected reflections. The characters in one book, as they talked with one another or stepped into the pantry for sex, seemed like kissing cousins to the characters in the next book, talking, picking berries, or sneaking in the door after a night’s assignation.
There is no Ohio in Tar Baby. The setting is exotic—an imagined tropical island called Isle des Chevaliers, privately owned, found off Dominique. But, like the small towns in the previous books, it also has its allegorical lore. Visitors and natives tell versions of a fishermen’s tale explaining that the island got its name from the blind descendants of a group of slaves who went blind the minute they saw Dominique. “Their ship foundered and sank with Frenchmen, horses, and slaves aboard. The blinded slaves could not see how or where to swim so they were at the mercy of the current and the tide.” They rode the horses to the shore. They hid. “What they saw, they saw with the eye of the mind, and that, of course, was not to be trusted.” The legend has it that they are there still, riding over the lush hills and through the dense rain forests.
The story is …