This brilliant, lyrical, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is based on the true story of the African-American slave, Margaret Garner, who temporarily escaped slavery during 1856 in Kentucky by fleeing to Ohio, a free state. A posse arrived to retrieve her and her children by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave slave owners the right to pursue slaves across state borders. Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter rather than allow her to be recaptured. In the novel, the main character Sethe lives with her daughter Denver in 124, the house which belonged to her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, which is haunted by the ghost of the baby she killed.
The ghost is more annoying than malevolent, at least until the arrival of Paul D, one of Sethe’s fellow slaves at Sweet Home who knew her husband Halle. When Sethe takes up with Paul D, who shows compassion for her traumatic past evident in the tree-like scars on her back, the ghost acts up even more; Paul D, however, storms back at it, and seems to drive it away—only to be replaced by a mysterious woman who appears and calls herself Beloved, the word Sethe had carved on the baby’s tombstone.
Paul D is driven away, as is Denver, eventually, by the growing intimacy and tempestuous bond being forged between Beloved and Sethe. Denver finally leaves 124 and looks for work, alerting the women of the community to the malevolence at work in the house. The women come and sing Sethe out. Some claim to have seen her appear with the naked Beloved (pregnant, we assume, after her sexual claiming of Paul D), who disappeared at the sound of the women’s praying and singing.
The novel’s strength lies in its lyrical yet unflinching prose, which varies between stream of consciousness and more straightforward storytelling and jumps around in time. Morrison’s technique more than any other conveys the traumatic reverberations of slavery. Set in 1873 in Cincinnati, it’s a very full story of sisterhood, motherhood, and the trauma of slavery, even/especially for those who managed to escape it. No one who worked at Sweet Home is free from rememories, especially (but not only) those of terrible horrors of slavery, whether being forced to wear a bit, watch a fellow slave burned alive, or the particularly cruel attack on the pregnant Sethe, who is held down and forcibly nursed by the white men on the plantation.