Frank is a black Korean War veteran, a year out, suffering PTSD, imprisoned in a mental hospital for actions he cannot remember. He has been engaging in a range of self-destructive behaviors that have led him to this bedraggled state. He had received a letter concerning his sister, “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry,” and must find his way home. There are barriers to be overcome, people who will help, and memories to be relived. One mystery that propels the tale is what happened to cause Frank’s demise.Home
gives the appearance of simplicity. But, this being Toni Morrison, there is always more, much more. First is that Frank’s journey bears a striking resemblance in some ways to that of Odysseus. He is a soldier returning from war. The mental institution from which he escapes seems reminiscent of a certain classical witch’s lair. He must cope with a grumpy one-eyed man, is drawn briefly to the sound of sirens, and, in memory at least, sees animals standing like men, reminding one of pigs that had been something else once. (He and his sister even see, as children, the outcome of men having been transformed into dogs) The home town to which he seeks to return is Lotus, Louisiana, a place where “there was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win and, save for somebody else’s quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for.”
More generically, there are dragons to be slain in order for Frank to return to and save his damsel in distress. Taken yet another way, after Frank has descended into the depths of hell, he emerges stronger and better able to triumph. A Greek chorus is called on to explain what the children (Frank and his sister) see in the opening scene, and whenever someone says “We led him out on a mule” you can probably assume it is a biblical reference. There is even what might arguably be considered a Jesus sighting, when a mysterious individual offers Frank a hand and urges him to “Stay in the light.” Toss in an exodus for good measure. So, a pot pourri of classical references, both religious and secular.
On another layer, Morrison offers us a portrait of what it was like to be black in the fifties. This includes the joys of Jim Crow, whites-only restaurants, police license to stop and frisk anyone at any time, even to shoot children, with little fear of being held accountable, forced sterilization, redlining, covenant restrictions. And, in addition, Morrison shows how humiliation of black men might impact their women.
He will beat her when they get home, thought Frank. And who wouldn’t? It’s one thing to be publicly humiliated. A man could move on from that. What was intolerable was the witness of a woman, a wife, who not only saw it, but had dared to try to rescue—rescue!—him. He couldn’t protect himself and he couldn’t protect her either, as the rock in her face proved. She would have to pay for that broken nose. Over and over again.
This is not the only example to be found here of people paying forward the harsh treatment they have received.
And there are recollections of further horrors from a generation before. Forced migrations, seizure of private property by men with guns, whether governmental or non, lynchings, forcing black people to engage in mortal dog-fights.
But there are flickers of light in the darkness. Kindness rears its smiling head. Conductors of one sort and another help Frank along on his quest, as he heads from the generic “Central City” south to a more pastoral place, to restore his family. On escaping the mental institution he sees a sign for the Zion
church, a powerful symbol of longing for a safe home
land, an equivalent maybe for the promised land of Canada for blacks journeying north in an earlier age.
Although I have read several of her books, I will leave to those whose familiarity with the work far exceeds mine the task of comparing Home
with Morrison’s other novels, these characters with those, these situations and themes with others she has written before.
The central idea of the book is the notion of home
. Is home to be found in Lotus, Louisiana? Maybe Chicago? A mythical promised land? America? When we think of the word “home” I imagine most of us conjure feelings of warmth, family, community. But what if home is not such a welcoming place? When Frank Money returns home
from his service in the Korean War, the USA that shipped him there does not exactly respond with open arms. For many, home is the place from which you are driven.
As with most journey stories, this is one of self-discovery. Not only is Frank heading back from whence he came in order to save his sister, but to face himself, and in so doing to find where home truly lies for him. Echoing the words of the poem Morrison uses to open the book,
This house is strange.
Its shadows lie
Say, tell me why does its lock fit my key
the home Frank dreams of is not the one he truly owns. His is a much darker abode. He must confront the memories from which he flees in order to be able to find his true home, his true self.
Although this is Frank’s story, we are given enough time with a few other characters to engage us in following their journeys as well. Frank’s sister, Cee, behaves like the immature girl she is and pays a heavy price, searching for a home with an exciting new husband, and then working in a household that harbors dark secrets. We get to know her well enough to care. Frank’s unpleasant stepmother is shown in soft light as well as harsh. And the woman with whom he is smitten, Lily, is given her stroll across the stage as well, and provides a mechanism by which to highlight a bit of the era’s McCarthyism. Home
may not be an epic tale of Homeric length. But it is very rich and layered, and will reward close reading immensely.