Scheming

One of the benefits of being an English professor is the way my job forces me to read several books at once. Right now I’m re-reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for my American Short Story class, Toni Morrison’s Sula for my American Ethnic Literature class, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for my Introduction to College Writing class. This particular combination of books isn’t one I’d intentionally plan: instead, it’s a serendipity of semester scheduling.

Sinous

In addition to the books I read for work are the books I read for fun. This morning, for example, I finished reading Difficult Women, Roxane Gay’s new collection of short stories. Every difficult woman has a story of how life made her so, and this a collection of those stories. Gay describes women who make poor choices, but she also chronicles the cumulative cruelties that led to those choices. Gay is neither sappy nor sentimental: she never moralizes. Instead, she illuminates the dark, difficult roads that lead to human resilience.

Cocktail party

This morning, I realized an interesting overlap between Gay’s stories and Morrison’s novel. Sula is a difficult woman: even when Sula was a child, her own mother admitted she loved Sula but did not always like her. Both Toni Morrison and Roxane Gay realize difficult women aren’t born; they are made. Sula refuses to be owned by any man, and this gets her in trouble, repeatedly. The only person who understands Sula is her childhood friend, Nel, but even their relationship is not easy. When Nel marries and thus chooses a conventional life, her life is set at cross-purposes with Sula’s. Loyalty in love and loyalty in friendship don’t always coexist.

Genteel

Roxane Gay’s stories are full of twins and inseparable sisters, shared trauma bonding women together more strongly than blood. Toni Morrison’s Nel and Sula are such a pair: they are friends in part because they share one another’s secrets. Ultimately, both Morrison and Gay suggest a woman can be loyal only to herself, and this is a crime patriarchy can never forgive. Women can remain true to their sisters, friends, or even children, but men are infinitely replaceable.

Aristocratic

Mary Austin once said men can’t survive without women, but woman with a child will do perfectly fine. Both Morrison and Gay go one step further, suggesting that even a child isn’t necessary, difficult women having within themselves the resources to stand alone, resilient.

A certain slant of light

It took me all of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, to figure out what the title referred to. Life doesn’t show much mercy on the tragic characters who people Morrison’s narrative, set in early America, when life’s cruelties were bleakly unforgiving. I initially assumed Morrison’s title was ironic, like that of Annie Dillard’s The Living, which seems to feature more deaths than it does lives. But Morrison’s novel is not a piece of irony, and neither is its title. There is a poignant mercy in A Mercy, even if it takes the entire novel for readers to realize it.

Mud season

Morrison’s novel opens with Florens, a lovesick teenage slave, setting off to find the object of her affection, a freeborn African-American blacksmith who had been hired by her master to construct an iron gate at the entrance of his palatial new home. Despite her infatuation, Florens’ mission is dire. Her master, a trader named Jacob Vaark, has succumbed to infection before occupying the new home he built with a fortune amassed from speculation in the slave trade, and now his wife–Florens’ mistress, Rebekka–is dying of the same illness. Believing the blacksmith who wrought the gate at the entrance to her husband’s doomed mansion will be able to heal her sickness, Rebekka sends Florens on a solitary errand to fetch him.

Gnarled tree

This is the linear narrative that underpins A Mercy. Florens starts her journey at novel’s beginning, and we follow her progress as the narrative continues. True to Morrison’s typically Faulknerian style, however, the narrative tells other stories, meandering from character to character and from present to past as it punctuates Florens’ journey with the back-stories of her compatriots. Florens tells her story in the first person, but a narrator tells the stories of her fellows. We see how Jacob Vaark became a reluctant participant in the slave trade. We see how Rebekka traveled to America specifically to marry Jacob, a man she’d never met. We meet Jacob’s other slaves: Lina, a Native American whose family and village were destroyed by smallpox, and Sorrow, a crazed and outcast orphan who survived the shipwreck that killed her father. We meet Williard and Scully, indentured servants who work on Jacob’s plantation, and we meet the freeborn blacksmith whom Florens is sent to find, hoping his mastery of medicinal herbs will save Rebekka.

Tombstones with trees

Meeting this disparate band of characters gives us an odd sort of insight into the nature of Jacob Vaark, a man who profits from the slave trade–and who owns slaves–without ever really condoning the practice. We want to believe that Jacob is a good man; we want to overlook the source of his fortune, the lavish way he decides to spend it, and the fact that he has surrounded himself with slaves and servants, most of them women, whom he has specifically chosen for their low likelihood of causing trouble. A house and plantation peopled by women, Jacob reasons, will be less rowdy and prone to riot than a plantation populated with randy young field slaves…and yet each of the orphans, outcasts, and survivors Jacob chooses carries her own hidden tragedies. There is no escape from trouble, Morrison suggests, regardless of who shares your story. This sharing of suffering is one of several subtle mercies that become beautifully apparent by novel’s end.

This is my long-overdue second review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.

It’s been more than two months since I reviewed my first audiobook of 2009 (Marilynne Robinson’s Home), and during that time I’ve listened to more than a half dozen audiobooks. In other words, I listen to books far faster than I review them! I figure I will have time to catch up with reviews this summer when this living is easier.

In the meantime, the photos illustrating today’s post are similarly “belated,” as I took them in Salem, Massachusetts last month. I previously blogged Salem’s Old Burying Point Cemetery in October, 2005; if you want to see what it looked like this February, you can view the entire photo-set here. Enjoy!