Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

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Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

I have two goals for 2017: read books with positive representations of fat women, and read books I already own written by black women. So far, so good.

Today’s Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Published in 1973 by Plume, originally by Knopf


Sula focuses on a few individuals who live in Medallion, Ohio, a place commonly referred to as “the Bottom.” We begin by learning about how the Bottom came to be, how National Suicide Day started, then move to Nel, her mother, and grandmother. Then, we meet Sula, her mother, grandmother, and a gaggle of “strays” that live with them. Sula and Nel are girls inseparable until one day Nel gets married and thus Sula leaves. Ten years pass, and when Sula returns it’s with bad omens galore. Their friendship can’t stand up under betrayal, especially since the two are so different as people now.

Basically, that’s the general plot of Morrison’s book. If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can. The trauma characters face is both severe and beautiful as a result. For instance, the Bottom is established through trickery. We learn:

A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of the bargain. Freedom was easy — the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn’t want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was the bottom land. The master said, “Oh, no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.”

“But it’s high up in the hills,” said the slave.

“High up from us,” said the master, “but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven — best land there is.”

Well, if you know anything about agriculture, you know that you can’t tend land up in the hills. Seeds and top soil wash away, it tends to be rocky, and because people are up high they are unprotected from wind and cold. The result of such trickery is life-long suffering, but Morrison also describes the Bottom as a unique home, a place people return to.

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Then, one young man leaves the Bottom to fight in WWI in France, 1917. Shadrack is hospitalized for years, but doesn’t know it, and is finally dumped  out of the institution because they’re tired of his aggressive behavior (which he didn’t know he had — he remembers only a few days of those years). Eventually, Shadrack makes it back to the Bottom where he becomes the town “idiot” of sorts, exposing himself to women and girls and peeing in public. He’s a drunk, someone who shouts at white people (and gets away with it, we’re told). He invents National Suicide Day as a result of his PTSD: if everyone dedicates themselves to dying, they won’t have to be anxious about when death will come for them. Now, it death always comes January 3rd. The story of Shadrack is amusing, odd, and sets the tone of trauma for the book.

Morrison sets up a history for our two main characters, Sula and Nel, but sometimes it doesn’t quite seem needed. Nel’s mother was raised by her grandma because her mother is a prostitute. We never hear of Nel’s mother again, though her story takes up a whole chapter is this very slim book (174 pages).

The intended emphasis of the entire novel is Nel’s and Sula’s friendship. They’re so close as girls they’re like one person. And yet, other than a brief mention of Sula cutting off a piece of her finger to scare away white boys who bully them, the big event that’s meant to convince readers that these girls are inseparable is a day when Sula and Nel play along the river. A small boy called Chicken Little plays with them. Then, as Sula swings him around by his hands, Chicken Little slips out of her grip and flies into the river, never to surface. Why these girls don’t run for help or try to save him is surprising, and the only thing I can come up with is perhaps they would be beaten for accidentally throwing a boy into the river or getting their clothes dirty should they try to save him (this is time of whippings for everything). The girls never tell anyone that they know how Chicken Little died, even as they watch his family wail at his funeral.

Since the book is so short, it can’t do everything. But I really wanted more to suggest Nel and Sula were best friends. Near the end, we learn Nel and Sula used to go with the same boys and then compare their kissing styles and pick-up lines. Why couldn’t we see this when they were girls? Overall, I didn’t feel the closeness Morrison wanted me to.

A theme I can’t fail to mention is sex. Morrison writes about sex in a way I didn’t know sex could be. Not the act, per se, but people’s feelings and reasons for it. “Empty thighs” is a concern for abandoned women. Promiscuous single women can be a help to wives, if she treats the man well, because it means the man has desirability. Sexual positions suggest power. Morrison will certainly get you thinking about sex in a new way.

However, Sula seemed like a book about Eva, Sula’s grandmother. She seemed Paul Bunyan legendary. Eva was abandoned by her husband, left with three children, nearly starved and frozen. Her youngest baby is screaming and can’t poop, so she uses the last of her lard and extracts the blockage from his read end. This story is pivotal; Eva is scared into doing something different because the baby’s death was too imminent that day. She leaves her kids at the neighbors and disappears — for 18 months. When she returns, she has money, one leg, and sets up a prosperous house.

Stray folks live in Eva’s new home: a white drunk who barely speaks who has pretty blonde hair, whom Eva calls Tar Baby; “the Deweys,” three boys who are at different times abandoned at Eva’s house. None of them look the same, yet no one can tell them apart. They are all called Dewey. Eva’s house is in constant motion, as people have sex, catch fire, are set on fire, leap out of windows. Yes, I know this sounds amazing, but it all happens. There was so much to mine from Eva’s parts that the titular character and her friend seemed back burner.

Not only that, but Sula remains unexplored in places. She goes away to college and travels the U.S., but when she comes back to the Bottom she seems almost unchanged. She values her mind, but it’s not really as a result of academic pursuit. More so, Sula isn’t hive-minded. She isn’t constrained by marriage. Is this what college taught her? What are her interests other than satisfying her sexual needs? Early in the book, Sula is an audience to events, but when she comes home she has opinions about that childhood that seem to come out of nowhere. I wasn’t ready for them and didn’t see the bridge. Again, did college change the way Sula analyzed her childhood?

Overall, the writing is superb and the story has many interesting moments, but the focus on Sula and Nel takes away from much of the rich places Morrison could have gone.

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48 responses »

  1. Very thoughtful and well-written review. I always find Morrison’s perspective really interesting, even if I don’t care for one or another approach/direction/etc… she takes. And I agree with you; her writing is outstanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ooh – have you read Dumplin’? It’s just come out in the States; author is Julie Murphy. It’s about a self-identified fat (and happy!) teen girl who decides to compete in a beauty pageant, and it looks amazing.

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  3. It’s been more than ten years since I read this, but I remember thinking that the relationship between the two women wasn’t a typical “best friends” relationship but rather was more about competition and loneliness than I would have wanted for either of them – but I think that’s often true of life. Most of the details you’ve mentioned are lost to me now, only the feeling of tension and longing, so I enjoyed reading your summary (somehow they don’t count as spoilers if I’m not planning to reread, and I’m not, because I’m still reading some of her books for the first time)! Are you intending to read another of her books?

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    • I’ve read other Morrison novels. For now, I’m going to go back and forth between my positive fat fiction and black lit that I own. I can’t wait to read Wresting the Muse by Melba Joyce Boyd. She’s an educator at Wayne State University, a school I really like. It’s a book about Dudley Randall, a man who lived in Detroit and started distributing poems on broadsides. It turned into a press, which is really cool and grassroots. This was during a time when racism was rampant in Detroit. I read part of the book when I was in college. I took a class called Black Detroit. However, the copy of the book available wasn’t able to leave the library. I finally found one recently! I’m also finishing up an autobiography.

      As for Sula, the friendship is layered in metaphor, especially sexual in nature (as in developing sexually, not sexual attraction). Sula and Nel are described as like one person with one brain.

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  4. Thought provoking review…among the thoughts provoked…It’s been a while since I read Sula so the details are hazy but I remember (the feeling of reading it at least) and it was one of my favourite Morrisons (eclipsed by Song of Solomon and perhaps even The Bluest Eye and Jazz). One of the things that I think appealed to me as a black-woman-becoming was the way it bucked gender conventions/defied what womanhood (and black womanhood in particular) was supposed to be. I feel like Sula (the character) embodied that. Community is important in Morrison’s storytelling though so patching the quilt that makes up that community together is important to her storytelling in my opinion even if it seems a diversion from the main plot. And I guess because I was someone separating from and returning to my own small community at the time when I read Sula (if I have the timing right), I could relate to the ways in which you feel both a part of and out of sync with that society (you know like your own skin) on your return – even if the reasons aren’t clear to you – and communities that reject individuality (perhaps as a matter of survival) weren’t a challenge for me to reconcile as a reader. The community she described felt very Caribbean (where I reside) in some ways (maybe sensibility). But like I said I’m hazy on the details these umpteen years later. I agree with you though that with Morrison how it’s written is perhaps just as sometimes more important than plot (Jazz comes to mind). Thanks for stirring these recollections of a favourite from a favourite writer. Morrison is a boss.

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    • Thanks so much for writing, Joanne. I remembered that you were from the Caribbean, as you discussed it in your Meet the Writer feature. I like what you said about patching together the community as part of the novel. I think, to me, all would have been well if the book were longer. There was so much to explore. However, Morrison’s books tend to be pretty short–about 200 pages, from what I’ve seen. I was left with so many questions. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, Nel’s story, and how Sula comments on Nel’s story, makes more sense to me. Nel is left with “empty thighs,” tying in Morrison’s excellent writing about sex and desire, but Sula says that Nel is only upset about what happened to her husband because she learned it from the rest of the town. She learned to be just like them, whereas she had been more independent when she and Sula were girls. That part really stuck with me. Thus, when Sula is having sex and discarding lovers and thinking about how sex is “wicked” (the word Morrison uses; Sula WANTS sex to be wicked), I get lost because I don’t understand her. I kept wondering if it was really Sula’s story (she gets the title, so I would think it belonged to her). But what happened to her during those ten years gone?! Morrison needs to write a sequel–wouldn’t that be amazing??

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      • I have mixed feelings about a sequel. But then I’m the one fan of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird fan who hasn’t read Go Tell a Watchman yet and don’t really want to. Sometimes I feel like Brie Larson’s character in Room: “This is the story you get”. And if I remember anything about reading Morrison, the answers don’t come easy.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ooooh, that is a poignant quote. I like that, and it makes me feel differently about Sula’s character. Also, I definitely don’t think you are alone in never wanting to read Go Tell a Watchman, as some folks worry it will ruin their love of Mockingbird, and others fear it was published under unethical circumstances.

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  5. You are a long way ahead of Australia in your study of black writing. But as for To Kill a Mockingbird, I think it reassures whites about their liberalness whereas Watchman makes them feel threatened or attacked. I agree with Ursula Le Guin that it’s a damn shame GSAW wasn’t published when Harper Lee intended.

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  6. I haven’t read Sula, and think I would read one of her other books first before this one, but I really enjoyed your thoughtful review. I think I would like to read it sometime, if only to get to know Eva a little better. Her story sounds more intriguing to me than Sula’s.

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  7. I’ve never read a Toni Morrison book, but Song of Solomon has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I’ve actually never hear of this one. So to clarify, you thought the focus was too much on the friendship? You wanted her to explore more of the small town community and/or some of the other characters?

    I laughed out loud that it takes place in a town in Ohio nicknamed “the bottom.” Being from Ohio, I can say its a fitting nickname lol

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  8. It sounds like there are a ton of things going on in this book. Especially so many traumatic things-like even one of these incidents would form the basis for an entire Canadian literary novel. I haven’t read much of Morrison-is this typical in her writing?

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  9. Wonderful review. I like how you write your reviews in detail giving both sides of the book. I have only read Beloved by Toni Morrison. I liked the book but I still had a really hard time reading it. The writing and the heavy themes made it a bit tough for me. I have Bluest Eye but still yet to read it.

    This sounds a bit like Beloved with the slavery bit. It sounds interesting though and I like the different themes. I wish some of the themes like friendship were more developed but it still sounds like a good read. Brilliant review.

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  10. I read Sula as a freshman in college, so I don’t remember it very well! But I remember loving it with the perspective of an 18 year-old. Wonder if I would feel differently now? Probably. I think this would be worth a reread. You raised some intelligent points about what you felt was lacking in the story. I wish I could remember it better and comment more clearly!

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  11. I am embarrassed to say I have never read a Morrison book. That said, I do have The Bluest Eye and Beloved on my bookshelf. It will happen soon. Have you read other Morrison? If so, where would you recommend I start?

    Your review is well articulated, but it feels a bit all over the place. I imagine that is a reflection of Morrison’s content– a lot is covered in 174 pages! Yet, you don’t seem disappointed in the lack to depth, or the overwhelming cast of characters. That speaks well for this book! So much sadness and grief… What a powerful sounding book.

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    • I would say start with The Bluest Eye; it’s the most coherent. The review was hard to write because there are so many characters that are well drawn but then seen swept under the rug when Sula takes over the story without explanation.

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      • Coherent is a great way to push The Bluest Eye. I’ve heard that Beloved is a bit of a challenge to read; perhaps that is why?

        You definitely have me intrigued with Sula. I’ll certainly return to it once I have a solid grasp of Morrison’s writing style. Sometimes, picking up the wrong book of an author’s first can ruin them for you entirely. When, honestly, you just need to get comfortable with their writing style. Baby steps.

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        • True! And speaking of reading a lot of an author, I went to the Zora Neale Hurston museum today in Eatonville, FL and got all the books of hers that I didn’t own yet. I’m probably going to go on a big Zora reading spree this year, lol.

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