Toni Morrison’s fleet-footed and lyrical new novella, Home, opens with a scene of disabling fear and fascination. During the 1950s two young African-American children, Frank Money and his little sister, exotically named Ycidra, or Cee, venture into the outskirts of the wretchedly poor farming hamlet of Lotus, Georgia. They watch, transfixed, as two stallions fight for the right to protect a herd of mares and foals. “Just kids we were,” Frank remembers.
The grass was shoulder high for her and waist high for me so, looking out for snakes, we crawled through it on our bellies. The reward was worth the harm grass juice and clouds of gnats did to our eyes, because there right in front of us, about fifty yards off, they stood like men. Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder.
Everything here is fixated on the eyes: the balancing of “harm” and “reward” to the children’s eyes, the wild white eyes of the horses, and the breathtaking visual wonder of the majestic scene. The whole performance is permeated by the mysterious analogy, particularly potent for an older brother protecting his sister, of horses standing tall like full-grown men. “They rose up like men,” the brother recalls. “We saw them. Like men they stood.”
On their return, stealthily avoiding a line of parked trucks, the children lose their way, as children do in fairy tales, and witness shadowy men pulling a body from a wheelbarrow and carelessly burying it, with one foot jutting out of the soil, still quivering. The foot, the horrified children notice, is black with a “creamy pink and mud-streaked sole being whacked into the grave.” “We shouldn’t have been anywhere near that place,” the brother, now grown up, ruefully confesses, though not to us but rather to a stand-in, real or imagined, for the novelist:
Since you’re set on telling my story, whatever you think and whatever you write down, know this: I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men.
Of course, Frank Money hasn’t forgotten the burial at all; he has repressed it—half buried it, still quivering, in his own wounded psyche. It will be the task of the storyteller, and of the grown-up brother and sister, to dig up the corpse, both literally and figuratively, and to give it, at the end of the book, proper burial. Morrison, who studied classics in college, is alert to the full cultural weight of this theme of proper burial, in the brother-sister theme of Antigone, in the Iliad, and in the nameless graves of generations of American slaves, including the buried child identified on her gravestone, in Morrison’s best-known novel, as Beloved. In Home, the journey toward decent burial will be a long one: “Frank and Cee, like some forgotten Hansel and Gretel, locked hands as they navigated the silence and tried to imagine a future.”
One test of a writer’s powers, Morrison remarked in Playing in the Dark (1992), her influential study of the “dark, abiding…Africanist presence” in classic American literature, is the ability “to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar.” That double-edged process pervades Morrison’s own fiction, with its weight of half- remembered trauma, especially the unspeakable violence inflicted on slaves and their descendants. Buried trauma is the closing note of Beloved (1987), in which the ghost of a child, “disremembered and unaccounted for,” and killed by her mother to prevent a return to slavery, haunts the lives of her survivors. “Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative—looked at too long—shifts, and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there.”
Freud named this twilit region of ghosts and “something more familiar” the unheimlich, or uncanny, which he defined as “in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.” The German word Heim means “home”; the uncanny is “what was once…home-like” but now feels strange or mystifying. “Whose house is this?” the speaker asks in one of Morrison’s song lyrics (set to music by André Previn in 1992). “This house is strange. Its shadows lie. Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?”
Home, which carries those lock-and-key lyrics as an epigraph, places two familiar stories, like jazz standards, in unlikely counterpoint. One is the coming-home narrative, as old as Homer, with a soldier bearing battle scars returning to a changed domestic scene. The other is the Grimms’ folktale “Hansel and Gretel,” that disturbing story of children repeatedly ejected from their unhomelike home, who stumble across a counterfeit home of gingerbread and sugar candy. The story has evidently held a particular urgency for Morrison since childhood. In a lecture last year at Princeton, where she taught for many years, she recalled the difficulty of learning to read as a child, and specified the “complex questions” raised in “Hansel and Gretel.”
Morrison wrestled with some of those questions in a key moment in her novel Song of Solomon (1977), when the adventurous character Milkman, in a test of manhood, must overcome his fear in facing his own origins:
When Hansel and Gretel stood in the forest and saw the house in the clearing before them, the little hairs at the nape of their necks must have shivered. Their knees must have felt so weak that blinding hunger alone could have propelled them forward. No one was there to warn or hold them; their parents, chastened and grieving, were far away. So they ran as fast as they could to the house where a woman older than death lived, and they ignored the shivering nape hair and the softness in their knees. A grown man can also be energized by hunger, and any weakness in his knees or irregularity in his heartbeat will disappear if he thinks his hunger is about to be assuaged.
Morrison insists on the overcoming of fear as a key to the meaning of “Hansel and Gretel,” as though at certain moments in life only sufficient hunger can make even grown men brave. It is a theme she returns to in Home with renewed intensity.
Both Frank and Cee are traumatized by what they have seen and suffered almost from birth. Their parents and grandparents, poor black sharecroppers, were hounded out of Texas by the Klan and fled to Georgia for a barely subsistent life. Their parents, “so beat by the time they came home from work, any affection they showed was like a razor—sharp, short, and thin,” barely figure in the children’s lives. Frank and Cee are at the mercy of their step-grandmother, Lenore, herself so bruised by life that she “believed she was merely a strict step-grandmother, not a cruel one,” acting in the best interests of her shiftless wards. From the children’s vulnerable perspective, “Lenore was the wicked witch.”
As a teenager, Frank, nicknamed “Smart Money,” perhaps for a resourcefulness that matches Hansel’s, longs to escape the hopelessness of Lotus, Georgia. Along with his two best “homeboys,” he joins the army, integrated by President Truman, and ends up fighting in the Korean War, where both his friends die horribly. “An integrated army is integrated misery,” he learns. “You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better.” Frank makes a tentative home in Seattle, as far from Lotus as possible, but flashbacks from Korea poison his relationship with an industrious woman named Lily who sews costumes for the theater and has little patience for a “tilted man” half-paralyzed by trauma.
Lacking her brother’s protection, Cee also seizes a chance to escape Lotus, following a bounder named Prince—“You mean Frog,” a friend jokes—to Atlanta, where he buys her a flower-print dress, steals her grandmother’s car, and abandons her. Cee finds work as the assistant for a creepy white doctor named Beauregard Scott who lives on the outskirts of town and performs “experiments” on poor women and abortions on rich ones. His wife assures Cee that Dr. Beau is not Dr. Frankenstein, but of course that’s precisely what he is. A “heavyweight Confederate” and eugenicist, he is “interested in wombs in general, constructing instruments to see farther and farther into them.” He turns Cee into a patient as well as a nurse—after first, as in “Hansel and Gretel,” taking care to “fatten [her] up” with fried chicken and potato salad.
What sets Frank Money in motion, racing across the continent from Seattle to Atlanta, is a scribbled note in the mail informing him that Cee is in danger. “Come fast,” says the letter. “She be dead if you tarry.” He escapes from a locked psychiatric ward where he has been consigned after a manic attack—he, too, is in the grip of wicked witches—and heads off barefoot into the snow on his long jagged odyssey.
Home has a sparer, faster pace than earlier Morrison novels like Beloved or Jazz, as though a drumbeat is steadily intensifying in the background and the storyteller has to keep up. Morrison signals this percussive narrative drive when, during his journey south, Frank listens to a jazz trio in a local dive: “After long minutes, the pianist stood and the trumpet player put down his horn. Both lifted the drummer from his seat and took him away, his sticks moving to a beat both intricate and silent.” As Frank concludes, “The rhythm was in charge.”
Rhythmic urgency drives individual sentences in Home as well. As Frank makes his escape from the hospital, “maniac moonlight doing the work of absent stars matched his desperate frenzy.” At some subliminal level we recognize that “maniac” goes more rightly with Frank Money, the “barefoot escapee from the nuthouse,” than with the moonlight, but the displaced pairing feels like syncopation, words struck slightly off the beat. A similar effect occurs a few pages later when Frank falls asleep and dreams “a dream dappled with body parts” before awaking “in militant sunlight.” Again, “militant” seems to belong with the body parts while the sunlight should be doing the dappling.
The slightly off-kilter, syncopated mood prevails as Money makes his way, by train and bus, first to Chicago, a more segregated city than he had been led to believe, then south. The book is most potent when the traumatic images loom just beyond Frank’s understanding, before we know what those men with the corpse in the wheelbarrow are up to, or what Dr. Beau has in mind for Cee, or precisely what Frank experienced in Korea. Frank’s eyes, according to his lover in Seattle, had “a quiet, faraway look—like people who made their living staring at ocean waves.” Like mad Van Gogh, he sees things not quite as they are. “Passing through freezing, poorly washed scenery” on his way south, “Frank tried to redecorate it, mind-painting giant slashes of purple and X’s of gold on hills, dripping yellow and green on barren wheat fields.”
While Frank’s response to the world around him on the home front is vivid and occasionally hallucinatory, what he carries with him from the war is truncated, shut off, prematurely buried. He does remember leaning on a wall with “nothing to see but a quiet village far below, its thatched roofs mimicking the naked hills beyond, a tight cluster of frozen bamboo sticking up through snow.” Suddenly, he notices “a single something was moving,” not the enemy—“they never came in ones”—so, perhaps a tiger. “No. It was a child’s hand sticking out and patting the ground. I remember smiling. Reminded me of Cee and me trying to steal peaches off the ground under Miss Robinson’s tree, sneaking, crawling…”
We are back in the realm of the uncanny, among the fighting horses and the buried and quivering foot. Frank watches, transfixed, as a young girl’s hand, “like a tiny starfish—left-handed, like me,” forages for rotten food among the frozen bamboo. One of his comrades on guard duty approaches the child, who smiles and “reaches for the soldier’s crotch, touches it,” and murmurs, “Yum-yum.”
As soon as I look away from her hand to her face, see the two missing teeth, the fall of black hair above eager eyes, he blows her away. Only the hand remains in the trash, clutching its treasure, a spotted, rotting orange.
This atrocity committed against a girl who reminds him of his own sister is what Frank brings home from Korea. The death of the girl, however, turns out to be a distorted memory he will later have to revise, in ways devastating to his own self-esteem, and find a way to bury appropriately.
Young men are supposed to learn how to “stand like men” in the army, asserting themselves like those battling horses standing tall. “Manliness,” to quote a recent commentator on the subject, “seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk.”* Frank Money learns nothing of the kind in the Korean War, a deadlocked conflict that he finds veterans of the two world wars have little respect for anyway. It is only in returning to home, and accepting responsibility for his sister, that Frank learns to stand like a man:
She was the first person I ever took responsibility for. Down deep inside her lived my secret picture of myself—a strong good me tied to the memory of those horses and the burial of a stranger. Guarding her, finding a way through tall grass and out of that place, not being afraid of anything—snakes or wild old men. I wonder if succeeding at that was the buried seed of all the rest.
Cee’s passage to maturity is different from her brother’s. Dr. Beau has ruined her chances of having children of her own. She is healed in body and mind by a group of older women, good witches, in Lotus. Instead of Dr. Beau’s destructive modern medicine, they employ folk remedies: “She was to be sun-smacked, which meant spending at least one hour a day with her legs spread open to the blazing sun.” Cee learns how to make crazy quilts for the tourist trade, turning her psychic wounds—her craziness—into the jagged patterns of art. Morrison risks sentimentality and cliché in her account of the healing of Cee, who must learn from one of the wise old women that letting others “decide who you are” is a version of slavery. “Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about.” “If she did not respect herself,” Cee wonders, “why should anybody else?” True enough, but not very memorably expressed (especially when compared to the more trenchant exploration of the same theme in The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel).
It may seem that Morrison adopts, in Home, a surprisingly traditional view of the appropriate adult responsibilities of men and women. Men must stand up for themselves while women are primarily healers and nurturers. When Frank beats up a pimp on a stopover outside Chattanooga, he’s just warming up for Dr. Beauregard. But the version of manliness Frank Money achieves by the end of the novella is, perhaps, a slightly different kind of manliness from, say, Hemingway’s or Kipling’s. He becomes a man by assuming responsibility for others, women in particular, and serving as both mother and father to Cee. There’s a creative, imaginative side of his character, and also a continuing vulnerability to madness. Lotus, which Frank hated enough to leave it at any cost, now seems “both fresh and ancient, safe and demanding,” a true home.
In one last echo of “Hansel and Gretel,” Frank takes his sister by the hand and they set out to solve the mystery of the corpse in the wheelbarrow. They learn from the locals about a hideous sporting rite, pitting African-American father against son, reminiscent of the slave tortures in Beloved or Absalom, Absalom! Together, they wrap the unearthed skeleton in Cee’s crazy quilt, a “shroud of lilac, crimson, yellow, and dark navy blue.” Frank nails a wooden marker on a sweet bay tree over the grave: “Here Stands A Man.”
Home, perhaps Morrison’s most lyrical performance so far, ends with a poignant poem, which is also the last chapter, in Frank’s voice. He has buried the small bones of the stranger under the sweet bay tree, “split down the middle, beheaded, undead.” The damaged but surviving tree is of course an emblem for Frank’s own survival amid the breakage that he and his sister, undead and no longer children, have undergone:
I stood there a long while, staring at that tree.
It looked so strong
Hurt right down the middle
But alive and well.
“Hurt right down the middle” is a pretty good definition of what it means to be a mature human being, an “unaccommodated man,” as Lear put it to Poor Tom, and “no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.”
“Come on, brother,” Cee says. “Let’s go home.”