"Beloved" by Toni Morrison (1987)
"The girl Beloved, homeless and without people, beat all, though he couldn't say exactly why, considering the coloredpeople he had run into during the last twenty years. During, before, and after the War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything. Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked by night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merry-makers. Once he met a negro about fourteen years old who lived by himself in the woods and said he couldn't remember living anywhere else. He saw a witless coloredwoman jailed and hanged for stealing ducks she believed were her own babies."
"Beloved" is, on the surface, the story of a haunting. Sethe, a runaway slave, escapes to the north with her children, only to be discovered in Ohio a short time after. Rather than see her children carried back to the south in chains, she attempts to murder her children, though she only succeeds in killing her youngest, an infant too young to walk. Several years pass, and Sethe meets the enchanting Beloved, who she comes to believe is the child that she murdered so many years before.
This, on the surface, is the story presented in "Beloved," though there is a lot more going on in this book. "Beloved" is also a book about the damage the slave trade has inflicted on the United States, on the search for lost loves, on the terrible weight of anger, and of wrongs that can never be righted. It is a book about finding a balance between the crimes committed in the past and the hopes inherent in the future. It is a book about letting go, and about finding the good in the present moment. It tries to be a lot of things, though I'm not sure if it always succeeds in what it's trying to do.
I liked "Beloved," though not as much as "Jazz," another book by Toni Morrison. There were times in this novel when I felt that she was trying too hard to make a point, and too hard to make particular themes more universal. Making this a book about the African-American experience of slavery was a stretch, and to do justice to such a thing would mean making it much longer, having the narrative extend over a much greater period of time, and adding more characters, with greater depth. In the end, you'd end up with something that more closely resembles Alex Haley's "Roots," and such a novel would have been far from what Morrison was trying to achieve here. Instead of reaching for this grand, historical theme, "Beloved" might have set its sights a bit lower.
I would recommend this book, but I don't know that it's as impressive as the reputation which precedes it. It might be Morrison's most famous novel, but I think she wrote better books. "Jazz" was one of these better books, and there may well be others.