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Toni Morrison: Building an American Home

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There's no reason not to begin with Toni Morrison's own words:

We got a home in this rock, don't you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on -- can you hear me? Pass it on!

These lines come from Song of Solomon, but they might have appeared in any of Toni Morrison's ten novels. Searching for home -- for a safe place to rest your head, grow a family, and be part of a community -- occupies the heart of Morrison's body of work.

How fitting then that her latest book has such a simple title: Home.

Toni Morrison is arguably America's greatest living writer, and possibly our greatest writer ever. Morrison is now 81 years old, Home could be (but hopefully, please God, won't be), the capstone to her Nobel Prize-winning career.

Home tells the story of Frank Money and his sister Ycidra (Cee). Frank has just returned from Korea, suffering from PTSD and haunted by images of friends blown apart and children searching for food but finding soldiers. Barely hanging on and not quite able to ease back into society, Frank is summoned back to Georgia after he's told Cee is dying.

As children, the Moneys and other black families were run out of their Texas town by Klansmen and settled in Lotus, Georgia. Frank and Cee lose their childhood home and spend the rest of their lives looking for a replacement. They leave Texas, sleep on couches, end up at a distant relative's house, and later, both flee Lotus as soon as they can.

Frank looks for a home in the Army and in relationships he's not balanced enough to commit to, but they all fail him. Cee flees to Atlanta with a man she married but hardly knows, and is quickly abandoned. Eventually, she believes she finds solace in the home of a doctor, but the doctor's house hides an evil that swallows Cee.

All of Morrison's novels are ultimately about the search for a community, a family, or a home where people can feel comfortable and nurtured. Song of Solomon tells Milkman Dead's epic quest to understand his family and his culture. The characters of Jazz are building new homes in a new city, and end up finding peace with each other. Paradise is about two homes -- one a building where women can be left in peace, and the other a town were African Americans can find a haven from the outside world. Morrison's most famous novel, Beloved, is about building a home and a family away from the ghosts of the past. As in Beloved, Tar Baby takes place almost exclusively in one house where several families have come together to form a community. Sula is about a woman with the audacity to leave her hometown, and then come back.

Many novels in general are about people searching for community, but Morrison makes this search explicit in her work, and that's part of the reason why she's the quintessential American novelist.

There's something supremely American in the constant pursuit for a new, better home. We carve houses out of brick and wood, neighborhoods out of houses, cities out of neighborhoods, and so on. We also build homes out of friends, family, music, literature, sports teams, political parties and any shared interest. Now we also seek it online, finding community in a Twitter list and Facebook's home page. There's something inherently antagonistic, even violent, in these communities. Sports bring fans together, but pit cities against each other. Political parties attack the character and patriotism of their opponents. People buy guns to protect their homes.

In Morrison's novels the search for home and community, as in American history, is fraught with peril and filled with violence. People fight to protect their homes and kill to find peace. Both Love and Song of Solomon end with a murder, while Jazz and Paradise begin with one. Evil enters the Breedlove home in The Bluest Eye. And the sufferings of Sethe and her family in Beloved are legendary.

None of Morrison's novels -- and Home is no exception -- have a truly happy ending. There's always someone left broken at the end. Someone is left to suffer. The violence and pain arise because we're never satisfied with our search. Our home isn't enough. We want something bigger, roomier, more comfortable. We want more Twitter followers, more championships, more seats in the legislature.

One of the lessons of Home, and other Morrison novels, is accepting your surroundings as your true home and just being comfortable there. Toward the end of the novel, one character echoes Song of Solomon:

Look to yourself. You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you. Seed your own land. You young and a woman and there's serious limitation in both, but you a person too.

Frank and Cee spend their lives searching for a home, but end up finding it right back where they started. Morrison's canon -- ten novels, two plays, several essays and books of nonfiction, an opera libretto, a couple children's books and one lone short story -- provide a new American community. It may not always be perfectly happy, but Morrison's work is ready to let you in when you need a home.