Home, Toni Morrison's new novel, is smaller in scope than her previous works. But there's depth in this 147-page story, which is so stripped of extraneous action and detail that it treads tantalizingly close to allegory.
Frank Money, born and raised in Lotus, Ga., was in the Korean War. He has been back in the United States for some time, but he hasn't been in any condition — and hasn't had the desire — to return to Georgia.
Lotus never had much to offer, which is why he enlisted. But the battlefield, where he lost both of his closest childhood friends, has broken him. Haunted by the violence he witnessed and committed, he struggles to control his thoughts and actions. Now and again, a zoot-suited ghost appears.
But a brief letter from a stranger in Georgia, urging him to come to the aid of his sister, Cee, — "Come fast. She be dead if you tarry." — compels Frank to escape from the Seattle-area "nuthouse" where he has been confined and head home.
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Morrison has always used her fiction to root around history, inventing and embellishing on life in a different era. Much of Beloved (1987) takes place in Ohio, where many slaves fled during and after the Civil War. A Mercy (2008) examines slavery in a primitive America.
In Home, Frank travels across 1950s America, a different sort of battlefield for a black veteran. Along the way, he is helped by a Rev. John Locke — the names in this story are packed with meaning — and a few others. At the same time, Frank is compelled to sit in the back of a bus and in a designated train car, because he's black.
As a child, Frank witnessed a racially motivated horror that no person could forget. Over the course of Home, Frank goes back to that scene of hate and ugliness to, somehow, resolve it. His journey is about truth (his name is Frank, after all). It's about becoming a man and facing what you've seen and how you've responded.
A conversation between Frank and a young boy speaks to the veteran's personal mission. The boy asks:
"Did you kill anybody?"
"How did it feel?
"Bad. Real bad."
"That's good. That it made you feel bad. I'm glad."
"It means you're not a liar."
"You are deep, Thomas," Frank smiled. "What you want to be when you grow up?"
Thomas turned the knob with his left hand and opened the door. "A man," he said and left.
But Home also is Cee's story. In fact, Cee's emergency, which involves a white doctor, nearly hijacks readers' interests away from Frank altogether.
Both Frank and Cee are in need of deliverance. Like the name of their hometown, they need something beautiful, some kind of grace to bloom from the mud of their pasts.
Home is compelling, but it is not Beloved, which remains, for me, the pinnacle of Morrison's genius.
But it's still Toni Morrison, whose wisdom and gorgeous prose seep into every dip and turn in the story.
There's a nugget on nearly every page.