Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Toni Morrison: Tar Baby. 1981

Tar Baby

People in town go inside because the sky weighs too much at noon. They wait for hot food with lots of pepper so the day will feel cooler by comparison. They drink sweet drinks and swallow bitter coffee to distract their insides from the heat and weight of the sky.

How very much like home. But this is not the heat of our Kuwait. It is “The End of the world” as Morrison calls it, Isle des Chevaliers, the setting for her third novel Tar Baby, where “clouds and fish were convinced that the world was over;” and where “champion daisy trees …, part of the rain forest already two thousand years old and scheduled for eternity, … ignored the men and continued to rock the diamondbacks that slept in their arms. It took the river to persuade them that indeed the world was altered. That never again would rain be equal, and by the time they realized it …, it was too late. The men had already folded the earth where there had been no fold and hollowed her where there had been no hollow.”
The setting in this amazing novel is more than just vivid. It speaks louder than the characters.

The clouds looked at each other, then broke apart in confusion. Fish heard their hooves as they raced off to carry the news of the scatterbrained river to the peaks of hills and the tops of the champion daisy trees. But it was too late. The men had gnawed through the daisy trees until, wild-eyed and yelling, they broke in two and hit the ground.

This discomformity in the setting is reflected in Morrison’s main characters. Here are some of them:
Jadine: lost her mother at an early age so was raised by her uncle Sidney and his wife Ondine who work for a wealthy white man, Valerian Street. Valerian provides for Jadine’s education and other expenses, so she lives a more privileged life than most black Southern girls.
Son: escapes from a ship where he is forced to work, and lands in Valerian’s house where Valerian attempts to ‘civilize’ him. He meets Jadine but their relationship does not succeed as Jadine realizes that they come from two opposite backgrounds and the savage in Son conflicts with the more polished Jadine.
Margaret Street: married 38 year old Valerian when she was 18. She used to abuse her son Michael. Ondine told on her when Michael was an adult, during a Christmas dinner party. Margaret blames Ondine for not stopping her then, claiming she was young and needed guidance.
Sidney and Ondine: raise Jadine like their own daughter but are disappointed when in the end she does not ‘pay them back,’ to which Ondine remarks “She’s not a savings account, … You don’t get interest back.” Ondine tells Jadine that “if she never learns how to be a daughter, she can’t never learn how to be a woman.” But Jadine insists that Ondine’s definition of womanhood is not the only one available.

This is Morrison at her richest in terms of the complexity of characters. It is also one of her richest novels in terms of presenting faulty character without allowing the reader to indulge in passing judgment, a strength in all Morrison's novels, but one that is more evident here.

Read Tar Baby. It is worth your time. It is also worth the possible headache you might get in trying to put the events together.