A desperate black man lumbers shoeless through snow-covered streets before a cold dawn. Frank Money has just escaped a psychiatric ward where he had been placed after his arrest following some uncertain disturbance. There he had been medicated and kept in restraints. The man is haunted by hellacious images of war, of the frozen, frenzied fighting in Korea into which he and his now-dead buddies were thrown. He is haunted, too, by memories of his backwater rural home in Lotus, Georgia, where Jim Crow ruled the land and where mayhem and murder could be visited with impunity upon impoverished black residents. “Everything reminded him of something loaded with pain.”
The soul-tortured veteran’s infernal visions can erupt spontaneously: “So, as was often the case when he was alone and sober, whatever the surroundings, he saw a boy pushing his entrails back in, holding them in his palms like a fortune teller’s globe shattering with bad news; or he heard a boy with only the bottom half of his face intact, the lips calling mama.” Since his discharge at Fort Lawton in Seattle, Frank has been roaming aimlessly trying to get some purchase on life and normalcy.
So begins a troubled man’s journey in celebrated author Toni Morrison’s latest offering, “Home.” It is a brief, wrenching tale of one shattered person’s search for redemption and renewal. Morrison is a superlative writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She was the first African-American woman to win that coveted award. In her Nobel citation she was recognized as an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” In her trenchant telling of Frank’s saga, her literary prowess is once again at the fore.
Before ever enlisting and going overseas to fight, Frank witnessed acts of sadistic cruelty at close hand, how in remote rural settings the vicious inhumanity of fellow human beings could explode suddenly and ferociously. He recalls a grisly incident that transpired in the ’30s: The peaceful residents of his indigent family’s neighborhood had been ordered to leave their Texas homes within 24 hours or face retribution. The people had lived in a congeries of 15 houses at the town’s edge. Everyone leaves except one elderly man who remains undaunted in the face of threatening white men, some of whom wear hoods of the Klan. He is beaten to death and tied to an old tree that had been planted by his great-grandmother: “In the dark of night, some of the fleeing neighbors snuck back to untie him and bury him beneath his beloved magnolia. One of the gravediggers told everyone who would listen that Mr. Crawford’s eyes had been carved out.”
In the wake of vicious racism experienced growing up and subsequent sanguine atrocities witnessed and committed in war, Frank’s grip on sanity and sobriety is tenuous. The one sure thing is his determination never to venture back to Lotus and the dark, rabidly racist world of Georgia. But a letter with an urgent message arrives: “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.” His beloved younger sister Ycidra — known as Cee — is in some kind of serious trouble. To help her, Frank must return to that harsh land of bitter memory. Even if he had health and money to travel across the racially charged landscape of America, such a trek would have to be carefully planned. In too many places a black face was an unwelcome sight. For a penniless and psychically wounded black man such an odyssey is fraught with even more peril.
Barefoot and frozen, Frank’s first stop on his uncertain journey is AME Zion, a small church that he recalled noticing on his otherwise disoriented journey to detention at the hospital. In the dark of early morning, a kindly minister named Rev. Locke cautiously admits the shivering man into his home. It is the first of a number of encounters in which strangers offer kindness, generosity and guidance without which Frank’s travel back to his home would be most difficult if not impossible. The good reverend and his gentle wife allow Frank to rest: “Get some sleep, brother. You got a rocky journey ahead and I don’t just mean Georgia.”
“Home” is dedicated to Slade, Morrison’s younger son, who died of pancreatic cancer when she was in the midst of the story. That was in December 2010. He had worked with his mother on a couple of children’s books. Morrison has referred to him as a “brilliant writer.” With the loss of Slade, she ceased her work on the novel for a time. While still deeply saddened by his death, in a recent interview that appeared earlier this year she states: “I’m getting a little better. It’s spring, and my forsythias are out. What is saving me from wallowing is the book I’m writing, where I spend the liveliest, most confident part of my day.”
Indeed, at 81, Morrison continues to affirm that she is a literary treasure. “Home” is the latest but surely not the last contribution to Morrison’s impressive oeuvre.