Some books are little worlds of their own, with enough nostalgia and pride to be rooted in the past and enough strength and relevance to make themselves felt in the present. Sula, by Toni Morrison, is such a book.
It’s a novel of people like the ones the author grew up with in the bottomland of the Ohio River Valley in the ’30s and ’40s. And it’s full of the air she breathed—air that could be so hot that years later Toni wrote, “flies slept and cats were splaying their feet like gulls, a day so hot pregnant wives leaned up against trees and cried, and women remembering some three-month-old hurt put ground glass in their lovers’ food, and the men looked at the food and wondered if there was glass in it and ate it anyway because it was too hot to resist eating it.”
From her youth in the small town of Lorain, Toni pursued a life familiar to an American writer—education (at Howard University), a master’s degree in English (at Cornell), a stab at teaching (at Texas Southern University and at Howard). In Washington, D.C. she joined a writers’ group and wrote a short story that evolved into her much admired first novel, The Bluest Eye. An editorship at Random House followed, and she wrote Sula.
It is the story of the friendship of two small-town black girls—loners in search of each other. Toni Morrison evokes a vanishing rustic America from a black perspective. Her character Nel has been raised to control her impulses while Sula, tempestuous and imagination-ridden, gives herself freely to them. A threat to the morality that the mythical town of Medallion, Ohio professes to honor, Sula leaves town, but returns to steal Nel’s husband. Townsfolk take to blaming all misfortunes—unruly children, a plague of robins—on Sula’s “evil” presence. But when she dies at 30 of cancer, they dimly realize they have lost their scapegoat and must reassess themselves and their town.
Critics of various persuasions have saluted the novel. John Leonard of the New York Times said, “Toni Morrison is one of the most talented writers working—prose like hers is astonishing.” Bernette Golden of New York’s black Amsterdam News noted the author’s “careful, polished style that hones through to the nub of our experience as a people.”
Toni Morrison traces her strength and identity—which is reflected in her characters—to an age of black grandmothers, raised early in this century, whom she calls “the liberated women of the world, who could shroud the dead, nudge African violets into bloom, make beautiful biscuits, plow; they could hold you in their arms, honey, and you’d think you were in heaven.”
Toni is 42, divorced, and works in New York, where her two sons attend school—the family commuting daily from suburban Spring Valley. Each summer she sends the boys to Ohio, where her parents live, to thrive on the joys of being black in a less pressurized atmosphere. There, Toni says, the boys can experience “a closeness to the earth, a closeness to the rhythm of life. There’s a funny kind of living space out there.”