Song of Solomon
I’ve let a few days pass since I finished Song of Solomon, to let it sink in. This is a book you can study for a long time because of its excellent construction and important message.
Song of Solomon is the story of Macon “Milkman” Dead, an African-American man on a journey to learn his family history, but more importantly, develop compassion, a sorely missing component of his character. Set in Michigan, the book begins in 1931 when troubled insurance agent Robert Smith believes he can fly and jumps off the roof of Mercy Hospital. Milkman’s mother, Ruth and her daughters witness Smith’s death and Ruth, who is pregnant with Milkman, goes into labor on the steps of the hospital. Milkman is the first black baby born at Mercy.
Milkman’s father, Macon, is a cold, opportunistic businessman and has made his fortune acquiring real estate and managing rentals to blacks in town. Ever-climbing, he rules the household and distances himself and his family from other blacks. As a result, Milkman grows up unsettled and bored, without need, ambition or empathy for others.
As a boy, Milkman meets Pilate Dead, Macon’s sister and the town’s bootlegger, who will become an important influence in his life. She lives in a shack with her daughter, Reba and granddaughter, Hagar, and seems to have supernatural powers. As children, Macon and Pilate were forced to fend for themselves. They separated and are now estranged. Although Macon forbids his son to visit the shack, Milkman is drawn to them, including Hagar. A romantic relationship with Hagar will show Milkman at his worst.
The larger backdrop of this story is the oppression of blacks, which has spanned multiple generations of the Dead family and has alienated its members and others in town. Morrison’s characters find different ways to live with racism. Some are survivors, like Pilate. Macon disassociates himself from blacks and others, like Milkman’s friend, Guitar and the Seven Days society, determine to avenge the deaths of innocent blacks. Morrison also shows how the women in Milkman’s family have been alienated by desertion and ridicule.
I don’t want to give too much away, because it’s better just to read the story, but Milkman leaves Michigan on a search for gold, believed to be hidden in Pennsylvania. His quest then takes him to his ancestral Virginia, where he learns the full history of his family, including Milkman’s great-grandfather, the legendary Solomon. Only when he fully understands his family history can he feel compassion for others.
One of the things I like best is how Morrison uses the concept of flying to connect her characters. The story begins with Robert Smith believing he can fly. Once Milkman understands his family’s history, he too can make a faithful leap.
I enjoyed Song of Solomon very much because of its symbolism, African-American folklore and magical realism. I think I need to read it again to fully appreciate this excellent story.
Thanks for visiting – come back soon!