Monday, February 28, 2011


,I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this, but I’m just about as white as they come.  I can’t even get a proper tan, preferring instead to lobsterize when exposed to the sunlight.  I grew up in a neighborhood of almost all white families, and I remember only three Black kids in my entire school until we moved to Florida.  It was also the 80’s, so my exposure to books including and/or about other cultures, even other American cultures, was limited.  Seriously, take a look at any school book until about 1995 and just count how many kids in the pictures are not white.

Since February is Black History month, I thought I would celebrate and broaden my horizons by swapping out what I had planned for a Black author.  I had a few already on my list, but in the interest of learning more stuff, I decided to try a book I had not heard before.  I have to give props to my librarian.  I give her three criteria – Black author, made into a movie, at this branch – and she comes back with a list of, like, 20 books.  I suppose it’s not that hard to find, really, with internet, but some of the stuff she came back with is kind of obscure.  This book, however, isn’t.  I say that because, while I had not heard of it before, every person familiar with Black literature has.

Toni Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Fiction for Beloved.  It is a powerful story, even for me who has no racial connection to the events that drive the main character, Sethe.  Morrison was inspired to write the story by the true story of Margaret Garner; because Garner’s story spoils Beloved so nicely, you are free to click here at your own risk.  The novel was published in 1987 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a publishing house under Random House.

There are essentially three stories in this book.  The main story is kind of a psychological drama ghost story of Sethe dealing with her past and Sethe’s daughter Denver discovering her sense of self, with romance mixed in.  Told in flashbacks mixed into the story when it comes to the mind of one of the characters are the respective histories of Sethe and her fellow Paul D, former slaves that had run away from a farm called Sweet Home.  No, it wasn’t in Alabama, and what kind of person would I be if I didn’t make that joke?  It was in Kentucky, and owned by a couple by the name of Garner, surly a tribute to the inspiration for the story.

Sethe has some skeletons in her closet.  A lot of skeletons, actually.  And they haunt her house – literally, the ghost of her two year old daughter from eighteen years ago says hi every now and then by wrecking havoc on the furniture, the cooking, and the dog.  The haunting has driven away her two sons and, because Sethe doesn’t want to lose her, has sheltered her last remaining child.  Sethe’s driving force is her love for her children, who most unusually are all sired by the same man – her husband Halle who was also a slave at Sweet Home but who never showed up at their meeting place the night they ran.

Denver has become reclusive and lonely since she’s afraid to leave the yard and no one comes to their haunted little spot of town.  She kind of hides out in the woods in a little tent the plants have grown into, and takes a certain pleasure in the tantrums of her ghost sister because it’s at least company.  Here is a detail that confused me quite a bit: I had trouble getting a beat on how old Denver was supposed to be.  She was ten, then she was six, then she was eighteen all within the first ten pages…  and since she has essentially been spending nearly all of her time in only the company of her mother, she acts a bit like a twelve year old.  I spent about a quarter of the book thinking that was how old she was.  She’s eighteen, which eventually becomes clear.

Paul D is not without past traumas, as well.  He pops out of nowhere on page six and tells Sethe how he’s been roaming for the past seven years.  What happened to him in the years between leaving Sweet Home and the Emancipation Proclamation (seven years prior to his showing up on the front lawn) is his storyline.

Yeah, she won a Nobel, too.
The title of the book has many, many layers of meaning, not the least of which is a character by that name who Sethe takes in after finding her sleeping on the stump in the front yard.  Beloved is at first ill, but seems to get more and more manipulative and selfish as she gets better and as she is accepted into the family.   Depending on how you interpret what she says (more on that when I talk about the movie), you can get the sense that she is either innocent as a child or sinister with dark secrets of her own.

It was difficult for me to get into the story in the beginning.  The occasional verb tense changes and the frequent point of view changes and usually unannounced flashbacks were a little confusing at first, and I had to reread or relisten to passages a few times until I got used to the style about halfway through the book.  However, unlike some other books that I’ve read, the flashbacks were always relevant and added to the understanding of the characters, their background, and the “best thing” in each of them.  And once I got used to the style, it was easy enough to follow what was happening during which time period.

Slavery is a main theme of the story, obviously.  Both of the flashback stories detail Sethe's and Paul D’s life in slavery and their respective journeys of escape.  Death, violence, fear, hope, love, despair, desperation, they all come into play as the stories unfold.   I did not intend to do two stories that involved slavery back-to-back.  As I said, this one was on the suggestion of my librarian, whom I had asked suggestions of on a bit of a whim because it’s February.  But, since we did just do Huck Finn, and talked about slavery and running away from it then, let’s do a little comparison.  Jim was running away because he was afraid of being sold and taken away from his home and assumingly his family.  His trek to freedom is fraught with fear, but little else.  He’s in the company of a clever white boy who can and will hide him, lie for him, and provide company on his journey.  Sethe’s plight started with her sending her children ahead of her, being beaten, setting off alone, nearly dying, having a baby along the way, and losing one of her children who then haunts her and drives almost all of the other ones away.  Skeletons.  Well, Beloved is definitely an adult book, and Huck Finn is a children’s novel.

The 1998 movie adaptation, directed by Jonathan Demme and released by Harpo Productions, starred Oprah Winfrey (big surprise) and Danny Glover.  Apparently, Oprah had tried for over ten years to get the movie made, since she bought the rights to do so even before the book got its Pulitzer.  I received a tip that the movie wasn’t that good from my best friend, but I like to form my own opinions.

And I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree.  The movie is remarkably faithful to the book, and the actors give some stellar performances.  But I don’t completely disagree, either, because the movie is remarkably faithful to the book and tends to drag on.  It’s three hours long.  Three.  Flipping.  Hours.  Stellar performances or not, there’s no need for three hours for this story.

So... is this a love story?
As far as story retelling goes, there’s not too much deviation from the book.  Although I could have used more acting and less yapping.  The movie was a lot more of the current storyline – that of Paul D and Sethe’s relationship, and the arrival of Beloved.  While I had trouble getting used to the flashbacks in the book, I felt that the movie needed more.  There was a lot of just sitting around and talking.  Maybe we’d get a fifteen second flashback at the end of it.  Come on, you’re going to go through all that trouble to get a location, actors, and costumes for the amazingly well-dressed slaves and not use them to the fullest? Show, don’t tell!  Telling is boring, and actions speak louder than words, you know.

I know I harped on Oprah for playing the lead role in a movie that she produced and her studio filmed, but she does play Sethe perfectly.  She was hard when Sethe was supposed to be, girlish where she needed to be, losing it where she needed to be, and never overdone or underdone.  She obviously has a lot of love for this story and for Sethe.
That's better!
The other performance that I thought was well done was Beloved, although it’s not how I interpreted her.  The way Thandie Newton plays Beloved (oddly, that’s what Thandie’s name means) is as a constant child.  She seemed to genuinely feel the remorse, shame, and love – never developing proper speech and often somewhat innocent even when she’s being manipulative, almost as if she was mentally challenged.  My perception of the Beloved in the book, fueled by Toni Morrison’s reading of her, was very conniving, sharp, and sinister.  She knew exactly what she was doing at all times, and the expressions of sorrow and helplessness that she showed were not genuine, only done to control Sethe.  The underdeveloped speech and accompanying childlike demeanor in the movie may have been a decision that had little to do with a genuine interpretation of the character and more to do with Thandie’s British accent, certainly not something that was commonplace amongst post Civil War ex-slaves.

Movie Denver had two modes: happy and jealous.  I’m not sure if that was a directorial decision or if Kimberly Elise was having trouble emoting.  I’m not too familiar with her talent, though, so maybe I could take a look at some of her other work before making assertions about her.  I will say she wasn’t bad, just that there wasn’t much substance to Denver, no hint of the dilemma she faced.  Just one day she was doing one thing and the next she was doing the opposite, with the occasional jealous glare in Paul D's or Beloved’s direction, or the playful laughter as she ran around with Beloved in the woods.

I don’t know what really to make of this movie.  It shows respect for the story and characters (for the most part) even if the interpretation of them is slightly different.  It’s not bad, and if you don’t have time to read or listen to the book a couple or more times, you can get the story out of the movie.  The full emotion and psyche is lost, though, on the refusal to show us why we really should care, what is so heavy or shocking, about these characters.  In order to fully understand the story, you need the book.  Be prepared to read and reread.

124 was spiteful.  Full of a baby’s venom.

Yeah, about listening…  I hope you guys don’t think less of me for using the audiobook for, well, almost all of it.  Audiobooks are awesome, especially if you need your hands and eyes (but not your ears) for, say, work, and because of my professional and academic schedule this month, I didn’t have much time to curl up and read.  Related note: sorry this is so late.

Edit 4-17-11: I just noticed, while doing research for a future post, that Beloved is on the ALA's most frequently banned books lists for 1990-1999 (#45) and 2000-2009 (#26). I swear I looked when I wrote this post, so I don't know why I missed it.  Ah well, here's the mention, and the addition of it to my banned books link.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Don't be afraid of that comment form down there. But please keep it clean! If you need to vent your spleen, e-mail me.