Earlier this year, I realized two things: (1) Even though Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon is one of my desert island books, I’ve only read it once, and that was about 15 years ago, and (2) I haven’t even owned a copy for half that time, having lost track of my original through several big moves (I blame my ex). I bought a fresh copy this spring, nervous and excited to give it another read.
The story focuses on Milkman Dead, only son of Macon Dead and expected successor to his father’s empire of property in an unnamed Michigan city. In his early teens, Milkman’s friend Guitar goads him into a forbidden visit to Macon’s sister, Pilate, a free spirit and bootlegger whom Macon long ago disowned, and he begins to learn more about his complicated family history, getting conflicting stories from his aunt, his father, and his mother. But while Guitar is pulled into a secret society of black activists, Milkman goes legit, working for his father to earn money to make himself more attractive to women. He enters into an illicit relationship with his cousin Hagar, Pilate’s granddaughter, but when he grows bored with her and tries to call things off, she wages a nightly campaign to terrorize him.
And that’s just the first third of the book. There’s so much going on in this story that Morrison somehow fits into a brisk 340 pages: race relations, class tensions, family secrets, deception, revenge, and even a multi-state treasure hunt for a long-lost fortune in gold. Along the way, Milkman is forced to reconcile what he thinks the world owes him with what he really owes to his family, his friends, his community, and himself. Morrison covers all this territory across several decades with ease, starting with a bang and soaring through the last breathtaking line.
I have to confess that, for a book I’ve long considered one of the best I’ve ever read, I quickly found I didn’t remember much detail, at least not right away. My fondness through the years was based more on my memory of how I felt the first time I read it, particularly at the end, and though I still retained that heady elation the second time around, I also found myself able to pay more attention to the characters and story and the crackling rhythms of Morrison’s language. Beloved was my first Morrison read and is more well-known these days, but Song of Solomon is still my favorite. This book is intimate and epic, immediate and mythic, timely and timeless.
(This review was originally posted as part of Cannonball Read 10: Sticking It to Cancer, One Book at a Time.)