In the town of Medallion, Ohio in 1919, there is a place called the Bottom. It is actually up in the hills, but this place and its inhabitants are all at the bottom…the bottom life, of the world, of hope. Pain is the only thing they never seem to plumb the depths of.
The people of the Bottom “did not believe death was accidental–life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew–only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime.” Pain was as foundational to their lives as the earth under their feet.
Sula Peace and Nell Wright are two girls born into this swirling pool of suffering. Both female and black, their exclusion and deprivation in this world are already complete. They cling to each other in the most intimate friendship. In each other’s acceptance, they find the only safe place in the world, the only port in the storm.
But the wounds they have received from life are too deep, too irreparable, and the girls’ injuries warp them and twist them. Eventually, Sula and Nell will act out their pain and hurt each other more than they could have dreamed possible.
Toni Morrison’s language is a flurry of color and light. Her descriptions at times seem senseless and incomprehensible, and yet they create an oppressive atmosphere in the reader’s mind. Her writing is alive and vibrant–more so than any of the characters that populate the Bottom. Each of the town’s citizens are walking a living death, but Morrison’s writing breathes realness into them. They are tragically real cauldrons of anguish and hatred.
Life in the Bottom is full of senseless suffering and meaningless routines, but Morrison weaves the threads of their chaos into a unified tapestry. Sula comes to embody the hopelessness of her community. As long as she is around, the Bottom is united against her through their sense of composure and resignation. Her refusal to cater to social order and her wild insistence on living true to her pain stands in contrast to their silent despair.
However, when Sula is gone, the town erupts into the very chaos they condemned so harshly in her. The theme of Sula rushes in like a river breaking through a dam, and the people of the Bottom finally carry their pain to its logical conclusion.
Sula provokes strong emotions and deep thoughts with its beautifully poignant language, tragic characters, and compelling historical insight. Each time I read a novel by a black author, I am struck with new devastation at the history of black people in America and the awful cruelty they have received at the hands of white people. The atrocities of slavery are incredibly reproductive; they keep birthing more and more pain.
While I appreciate Morrison’s poetic language–I could practically taste and smell life in the Bottom–and the way she stimulated my mind to compassion, I couldn’t enjoy the book. The story is all pain. Pain is all there is in the beginning, the middle, and the end. There is no goodness, nobility, generosity, or hope. Every character is deeply, deeply dysfunctional… and understandably so!
I feel compelled to read modern classics like Sula, (as a lover of literature and of learning) and I want to like them. But a story completely devoid of hope and redemption or even glimmers of basic goodness doesn’t qualify as a good story in my opinion. While I am sure there are many readers who would strongly disagree with me, I am convinced that there are three essential components to a good book.
Be on the lookout for a blog post where I’ll explain those three components and how they work together to make or break a book.