Book Club: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
On Sunday, August 27, our book club met to discuss Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I recommend this book for everyone, especially those interested in family history and black American history.
Song of Solomon deals with themes of mythology & folklore, family stories & legends, sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, flight/abandonment, violence, and justice.
Justice is a large theme of the book, as Milkman’s best friend Guitar reveals that he’s part of a secret society that retaliates against senseless killings. When a black person is murdered by a white person and no justice is given, the Seven Days take justice into their own hands. Guitar’s day is Sunday, which means he avenges the deaths that happen on Sundays.
The main character, Milkman, gets his name from breastfeeding, so I’ve added it to my list of books with breastfeeding. His mother, despised by her husband, looks forward to the moments of nursing her 4 year old son in the afternoon. Their tenant Freddie sees her nursing her son through the window. He makes a huge deal of it, telling everyone in town (except Milkman’s father, who is an angry, serious man).
In addition to these themes, there are some elements of magical realism, and there are some instances that feel like fantasy. The prose is rich and thick with meaning, as expected with Queen of Prose Toni Morrison.
SOME STANDOUT QUOTES FROM SONG OF SOLOMON:
“‘Did he come with a caul?’
‘You should have dried it and made him some tea from it to drink. If you don’t he’ll see ghosts.”
‘You believe that?’
‘I don’t, but that’s what the old people say.'”
I’m glad I highlighted this passage. It’s so close to the beginning that I forgot about it. Later when I was flipping through, questioning Milkman’s adventures and his encounter with Circe, the ancient midwife who delivered his father and aunt, I saw this passage.
So, does Milkman see ghosts? What do you think?
“She had the distinct impression that his lips were pulling from her a thread of light. It was as though she were a cauldron issuing spinning gold. Like the miller’s daughter—the one who sat at night in a straw-filled room, thrilled with the secret power Rumpelstiltskin had given her: to see the golden thread stream from her very own shuttle. And that was the other part of her pleasure, a pleasure she hated to give up.”
Ruth breastfeeds Macon (Milkman), and Freddie sees her. Ruth’s son is older, too old to be breastfeeding they think, and that’s how Milkman gets his name.
“…she had not come into this world through normal channels; had never lain, floated, or grown in some warm and liquid place connected by a tissue-thin tube to a reliable source of human nourishment. Macon knew otherwise, because he was there and had seen the eyes of the midwife as his mother’s legs collapsed. And heard as well her shouts when the baby, who they had believed was dead also, inched its way headfirst out of a still, silent, and indifferent cave of flesh, dragging her own cord and her own afterbirth behind her.”
This passage is about Pilate’s birth. I’ve included it in my list of birth scenes in books.
“We were some scared children. Macon kept telling me that the things we was scared of wasn’t real. What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?”
Pilate says this to Milkman. I like the indifference to what is real, because fear is fear, no matter if monsters are real or not. Fear is another theme of the book.
“Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world. Maybe the next, but not this one. Let me tell you right now the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you’ll own yourself and other people too. Starting Monday, I’m going to teach you how.”
Macon to Milkman. Milkman gets drastically different advice from his father and his aunt. In the end, it’s his aunt who he goes home to first, his aunt who he cries and sings over.
“I tried to get a midwife for her, but the doctor said midwives were dirty. I told him a midwife delivered me, and if a midwife was good enough for my mother, a midwife was good enough for his daughter. Well, we had some words between us about it, and I ended up telling him that nothing could be nastier than a father delivering his own daughter’s baby.”
Macon to Milkman. Macon and his wife Ruth despise each other. There is no love there, only obligation. And much of their discontent points back to Ruth’s father, the first black doctor in the town, and the source of the name Not Doctor Street where they live.
“A young Negro boy had been found stomped to death in Sunflower County, Mississippi. There were no questions about who stomped him—his murderers had boasted freely—and there were no questions about the motive. The boy had whistled at some white woman, refused to deny he had slept with others, and was a Northerner visiting the South. His name was Till.”
In the barbershop. And then later:
“‘They say Till had a knife,’ Freddie said.
‘They always say that. He could of had a wad of bubble gum, they’d swear it was a hand grenade.'”
Not that I have to say this, but unfortunately our society is STILL dealing with this. Justice for innocent black and brown people, or rather, the lack of justice.
“From then on when some particularly nasty murder was reported, the Negroes said it was Winnie Ruth. They said that because Winnie Ruth was white and so were the victims. It was their way of explaining what they believed was white madness—crimes planned and executed in a truly lunatic manner against total strangers.”
“The calculated violence of a shark grew in her, and like every witch that ever rode a room straight through the night to a ceremonial infanticide as thrilled by the black wind as by the rod between her legs; like every fed-up-to-the-teeth bride who worried about the consistency of the grits she threw at her husband as well as the potency of the lye she had stirred into them; and like every queen and every courtesan who was struck by the beauty of her emerald ring as she tipped its poison into the old red wine, Hagar was energized by the details of her mission.”
Hagar knows that Milkman doesn’t love her, can’t love her. So she goes for fear, since she can’t have his love.
“It was all language. An extension of the click people made in their cheeks back home when they wanted a dog to follow them. No, it was not language; it was what there was before language. Before things were written down. Language in the time when men and animals did talk to one another, when a man could sit down with an ape and the two converse; when a tiger and a man could share the same tree, and each understood the other; when men ran with wolves, not from or after them. And he was hearing it in the Blue Ridge Mountains under a sweet gum tree. And if they could talk to animals, and the animals could talk to them, what didn’t they know about human beings? Or the earth itself, for that matter.”
Milkman tracks his ancestors to Virginia and ends up in the middle of a hunting trip. He’s lost from the others, sitting against a tree in the black of night. He has some revelations about his life, about how he’s treated those closest to him. And, as this passage suggests, he contemplates the world and humanity.
“He can’t value you more than you value yourself.”
Guitar tells this to Hagar when he’s trying to talk her out of her destructive love or obsession with Milkman. He gives a long speech to Hagar, but she can’t hear him. The whole speech is fantastic; this is just the end of it.
This is the first time I’ve highlighting in a book in a LONG time. It felt weird at first to mark one of my sacred books, but it did make me feel more alert, ready to find the passages that speak to me and mark them to share later.
Song of Solomon was a really interesting read. Toni Morrison writes mostly from Milkman’s perspective, and she does a great job of writing from a man’s point of view. The women in the novel are fascinating, though since we see them mostly from Milkman’s eyes, we don’t get a full picture of them. I could probably write a whole other post (or three) on the women of Song of Solomon. There are also lots of Biblical names in the book, so I’d love to analyze how or if those names drive the characters’ storylines. I could probably do another entire post on the Seven Days. Maybe I will later…
Have you read Song of Solomon? What did you think? Email me & let’s talk books.
Other Toni Morrison books I adore are: Sula, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved.