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By Toni Morrison
New York: Penguin Group – Plume, 1987
ISBN # 0452-26011-6
337 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2013

The novel is the intriguing and difficult story of the Dead family. The family’s name goes back to 1869 when the grandfather, a former slave, registered with the U.S. in order to get his citizenship. He didn’t read or write and they didn’t understand him. When asked who his father was, he told them he was dead. Thus they named him Mr. Dead.

The forefather was a sort of miracle worker. He succeeded at virtually everything he did and achieved success in a manner that few blacks in the south did during that period.

However, this is mainly the story of his grandson, Macon Dead II, who is generally known as “Milkman” harking back to a widely known story that his mother nursed him until he was already in school

Milkman’s parents are upper class blacks. His father, Macon is a slum landlord, very successful, but rough on his mainly black tenants. His mother, Ruth, is the daughter of a successful black physician. They live in Michigan and are well settled. Ruth’s father is dead, but the very strange relationship between father and daughter hangs as a weight round her neck and marriage.

Macon has larger dreams that his slum properties. It is post war II and the economy is booming. He has managed his money well and has dreams of building an upscale housing development for wealth blacks which will be built around a lake.

The relationship between Macon and Ruth is a very sad one. She is weak and terrified, he is blundering and insensitive, concentrating primarily on his wealth accumulation and expecting Ruth to simply obey.

“Each one befuddled by the values of the other. Each one convinced of his own purity and outraged by the idiocy he saw in the other. She was the Indian, of course, and lost her land, her customs, her integrity to the cowboy and became a spread-eagled footstool resigned to her fate and holding fast to tiny irrelevant defiances.”

This second generation Dead family has two daughters, Magdelena (called Lena) and First Corinthians (whose name was picked blindly from pages of the Bible). The only boy, Milkman, was born in 1931 and is much younger than his sisters.

Another important member of the Dead family is Macon’s sister, Pilate. She is about 17 years younger than her brother and lives a sort of hippie-type life, also selling drugs along the way. She is an occult figure, having been born without a naval and all the myth and mystery that goes with that fact. Men were general terrified of her.

Pilate has a daughter, Reba and a granddaughter, Hagar.

The last really essential character of the novel is Guitar, a good friend of Milkman but who lives with Pilate. He becomes a member of a group called Seven Days. This very secret group was begun in the 1920s and each man is one of the 7 days of the week. Since there is non-stop gratuitous killing of blacks by whites, the 7 have appointed themselves to retaliate for murder of Negroes. They don’t go after the killer, but randomly choose any white and kill that white in a similar fashion as the black was killed. Whichever one of the 7 who has such a murder occur on his “day of the week” is the one who must then kill some white person.

“It doesn’t matter who did it. Each and every one of them could do it. So you just get any one of them. There are no innocent white people, because every one of them is a potential nigger-killer, if not an actual one.”

The point is to balance the ratio of whites to blacks over 7 generations.

In the first section of this two-sectioned novel we mainly follow the story of the Dead family, centering on Milkman and his relationships with his parents, sisters, Pilate’s family and Guitar.

However, many sections seem like small independent episodes or stories only loosely tied to any central plot – the history of the Dead family.

Things dramatically change in the second section. Milkman learns of family legends which include his grandfather coming to be some sort of mystical miracle worker who not only succeeded in the heart of the south but became a very prosperous and successful Negro farmer, having amassed a large amount of gold and even had the ability to fly and other extraordinary feats. Pilate knows much of this story and Milkman, terribly desirous of being able to go off on his own and leave this crazy family, sets off in the early 1960s to go to the location of his grandfather’s farm to locate this missing gold.

He is 32 when he goes back to his grandfather’s house to hunt the gold. His dad was 72 at the time and pressing Milkman to remain at home and continue to work for him.

In his journey to the south all seems to go crazy. He learns from seemingly loosely connected relatives that the grandfather could fly and perhaps went back to Africa and all other manner of occult events. And, back at home, word leaks out about his seeking out this gold and his best friend, Guitar, is out to kill him for not sharing the gold with him and Pilate. The pace of book two is very fast and wild. Nothing is ever really resolved, eventually the novel simply ends. We never really learn much about the grandfather or the alleged gold.

The novel is gripping reading. Toni Morrison can tell stories quite well. Bit by each bit I tended to be captivated and kept on reading and reading, much longer each time I picked up the book than I had intended. On the other hand it is hard for me to see this as a novel in the senses I’m used to. I was reminded of both of Mark Twain’s famous novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in that there would be one sort of contained “event” after the next which was like a collection of fascinating short stories loosely linked into a whole. But, I never could come to see it as a single story heading to some major conflict and resolution – and that was in Part I. Once that section just ended and we were plunged into the my misty Part II, I just hung on and read; loving paragraph by paragraph, little section by little section, but finding very little coherence or believability about the whole.

On the other hand I had never before read a novel that so focused on a black family and gave it such an intriguing and gripping treatment. I very much appreciated that aspect of Morrison’s work.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett