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Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon

The quest for identity is, of course, a key theme of twentieth century literature but this search takes on an added importance for African-Americans, whose past has all too often been concealed by slavery. This novel is the story of Macon Dead. He is known to all as Milkman, because he was breast-fed till the age of four. His mother, Ruth, is the only daughter of the only black doctor in town and his father, also Macon, as is his father, is a well-to-do businessman. The marriage is not particularly good, with Ruth still idolising her father and Macon being violent towards her. Nor does Macon Sr like his sister, Pilate, to whom he has not spoken for years, as he feels she undermines his social position in the town. The pair of them had fled when their father had been shot by whites wanting his farm. Pilate has an illegitimate daughter and lives with her and her granddaughter, Hagar, who will later fall in love with Milkman. Ruth and Macon also have two daughters, called Lena and Corinthians, named from the Bible.

Milkman does not know Pilate, as his father has been determined to keep this side of his family separate but when Milkman befriends Guitar, it is Guitar that will introduce Milkman to his aunt and Milkman will fall for his cousin, Hagar. When he leaves school he goes to work for his father, collecting rents and starts an affair with Hagar. But, gradually, he loses interest in her and, when he breaks it off, she tries to kill him. Milkman gradually learns about his family past from Pilate and his father and plans to go off for a year to find out more. His father refuses to finance him but then, when he learns that Pilate has a heavy sack in her house, which he believes contains gold, he offers to finance his son if he will steal the gold. The burglary goes wrong and Guitar, who was helping Milkman, and Milkman are arrested, though the bag only contains Pilate’s late husband’s bones. After being rescued by Pilate, Milkman sets off for Virginia in search of the gold and his roots.

In Virginia, he meets Circe, the caregiver of his father and aunt, but the gold is not in the cave where he expected to find it. However he does find out quite a lot about his ancestors, including the eponymous Solomon, as well as his Native American ancestor, Singing Bird, and returns back home, somewhat wiser, though Morrison leaves it open as to how wiser. Against all this is a background of racial strife and antagonism. Milkman’s father is condemned for exploiting whites and Milkman is criticised by blacks for this. A black man is brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman. Guitar is part of a group that avenges the killing of blacks by whites by killing a white in revenge, in the same way that the black was killed. In short, the problems that blacks face are acute.

This is probably Morrison’s most complex novel and the one that had the most commercial success and rightly so. Morrison does not come up with easy answers but nor does she avoid the difficult questions. Milkman is not only the child of his two parents but also his past is what has helped make him what he is. Whether, at the end, he fully understands this is not clear but there is no doubt that his quest has given us a fine novel.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Knopf