Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Why You Should Read Beloved: If you’ve ever felt like love was a battlefield or a creature from the black lagoon, this book gets it.

Book Size: Smallish. You could finish it in a week or so, but you’d get some real nightmares if you tried.

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The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:

At the tail end of the Civil War, a former slave named Paul D. is wandering the country in search of the people he’s lost and discovers a friend from his past life living in a haunted house.

The friend, Sethe, is a fellow escapee from Sweet Home Plantation, but her teenage daughter, Denver, was just a bump in her mother’s belly the last time Paul D. laid eyes on her. Now, the two are pariahs, living in a house that everyone avoids (and that Sethe’s three older children seem to have abandoned). However, it’s not the ghost in the house that’s scaring people away – it’s just a baby ghost, which never does worse than knock things off shelves and try to crawl up the stairs – it’s Sethe’s dark past, which is much worse than any ghost could be.

The thing that everyone knows, but no one talks about, is this: a few weeks after Sethe escaped slavery, fleeing from inhuman abuse and delivering baby Denver on the way, a team of slave-hunters caught up with her in her own backyard. Rather than let her children suffer as she suffered, Sethe grabbed an axe and saw and tried to kill all four of them.

In her panic, she managed to finish the job on only one: her older daughter, still barely big enough to crawl, whose ghost now lurks in Sethe’s home.

Too little for a name, the baby was buried with nothing but the word “Beloved” on her tombstone.

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Until now, the baby ghost has been content to rattle around the house playing games and throwing the occasional psychokinetic tantrum. Once Paul D. arrives, though, everything changes: he falls in love with Sethe, becomes the father that Denver never got to have, and starts to help this broken family heal.

The ghost realizes that her mother might move on and forget her, and, like any child, she cannot bear the thought.

A few days later, a teenage girl with the mind of a baby and memories of a childhood in Sethe’s arms walks fully dressed out of a lake and staggers toward Sethe’s door.

The nameless baby ghost, who calls herself Beloved, wants the love her mother never got to give her, and no one will stop her from getting it, no matter what…

 

The Characters:

Sethe, the mother. A beautiful woman with a will of iron, Sethe grew up on a plantation that claimed to be a free-thinking oasis where the slaves were taught to be men and women, not beasts of burden. The idea was always ridiculous but doubly betrayed once the plantation’s high-minded owner died and his brutal brother-in-law took his place. Scarred by her own mother’s inability to care for her, Sethe throws every part of herself into motherhood and loves her children in a possessive, obsessive way that she considers the most important part of freedom.

Denver, the sister. A naturally shy and quiet girl, she was made even lonelier when her mother’s crime drove away her brothers and scared off every possible friend. For long periods of her childhood, Denver didn’t talk at all; even now, she’s desperate for love and friendship, and hates anyone who might take it away. Much braver and more heroic than she looks, as it turns out, but we don’t know that yet, and neither does she.

Beloved, the baby. Despite looking like a teenager, Beloved still has the childish mind she died with, right down to the faint memories of her earliest days. Like all babies, she’s selfish, obsessive, and greedy – for sweets, for pretty colors, for attention, and most desperately of all, for love. It’s not clear if she’s come to reunite with her family, or to punish her family, or just to get all the love she never got the chance to have. She’s just a hunger with a body: what the book calls “a loneliness that walks.”

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Themes:

Slavery and horror. This is a ghost story, full of haunted houses, magic spells, and the walking dead.

At the same time, most of the terror in this story comes not from hauntings and ghouls but from the ordinary mechanics of slavery. Again and again, we hear ghost stories — stories about shambling creatures who steal milk from mothers, plant trees in their living bodies, lock them up in cages and collars, stories about mothers hanging from trees and friends set on fire – that turn out not to be ghost stories at all, but real memories of things done by real people in the name of slavery.

That’s the point, really: that the reason no one is phased by something as banal as a baby ghost upsetting the dishes or a dead daughter walking out of a lake is because they’ve been living in an institutionalized slasher flick. As one character puts it, the country is so full of ghosts in these times that it’s amazing anyone can move.

Possession and love. For Sethe, love is another word for freedom. As a slave, she was never able to love or be loved. She only remembers one conversation with her mother, who worked the fields while Sethe was cared for by other women. Her husband was the only one left of a dozen siblings, and Sethe knew that her children, too, could be taken away at any moment. Her marriage, and especially her motherhood, was just a joke to the people who owned her, like a dog making friends with another dog at a park.

As a result, Sethe now loves her family so much and so hard it, frankly, freaks people out. Even Paul D. is unnerved. Her love is possessive, all-consuming, and functions on a level of blood and milk far beyond words. It’s not fair, kind, or rational. It’s the opposite: mad, intensely powerful, and often cruel. At the same time, it gives her the strength to do any number of incredible things, and keeps her family going when nothing else will.

It’s that love that drove Sethe to try to kill her children; and, at the same time, it’s that love that allows Beloved to feed on her, growing larger and larger while her mother gives up and fades away.

Which is, you know, a problem, because love can’t mean freedom if it also means its opposite.

The past. Sethe might be the only character with a living, breathing (well, sort of) embodiment of her past camped out on her kitchen floor, but there are plenty of other characters who come pretty close.

All of the characters, especially the former slaves, are still in the grip of their dark pasts: humiliations they’ve endured, wounds they’ve suffered, horrors they’ve seen, people they’ve lost, terrible things they’ve done.

In this book, it’s the past, more than anything else, that’s beloved: the terrible, twisted memories that make these characters who they are, the ones they must let go of if they want to survive but can’t let go of without losing themselves.

William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” This book takes that about as literally as you can.
 

TL;DR:

Beloved is the saddest and scariest book about love that you will ever read. If you hang in there long enough, though, it might also, just possibly, make you start to believe in that cliché that love can set you free.
 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

“Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.”

 
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Side Effects of Reading This Book May Include:

Poltergeists, walking corpses, dark secrets, and tears over shed blood and spilled milk.
 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
… looking at the relationships between parents and children on their rawest, most primal level, try Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which looks at fathers and sons in much the same way Beloved looks at mothers and daughters. It’s also grim enough to make Beloved seem positively chipper.
 
…using campfire stories to talk about real world demons, try Angela Carter’s Burning Your Boats. She specializes in dark fairy tales for a complicated world.
 
…the way the ghosts a dark past can mess around with life and love, try Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered. For writers who set their books a hundred years apart on different continents, it’s amazing how many of the same conclusions these two authors come to.

*I had this poem “Open Letter to Black People in Horror Movies” by Omar Holmon & Anthony Ragler rattling in my head while I was writing this piece. Check it out:

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