Sula (1973)

by Toni Morrison

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison is often thought difficult to read — complex, subtle, emotionally wrenching. For those who are wary of giving Morrison a try, her early novel Sula a might be a good book with which to start. It is a short and fairly straightforward read, despite its subtlety and poetic passages that require full concentration. And although race is central, as in all of Morrison's work, Sula ends on a note of redemption, not tragedy.

The title character meets Nel, who will become her best friend, when they are 12-year-olds growing up in the African American part of Medallion, Ohio, in the 1920s. Their community is called "the Bottom" even though it's up the hill from the valley where the whites live. With a strong, one-legged grandmother and free-spirited mother, Sula grows up to be independent and rebellious, leaving town, going to college, sleeping around without love or shame. Nel, in contrast, does the expected, becoming a wife and mother and staying in Medallion.

Sula returns after 10 years of wandering from city to city and becomes the most feared and hated person in the Bottom, both because of others' small-mindedness and her own inability to accommodate anyone else's feelings. She breaks up Nel's marriage without remorse. The friends are estranged until Sula becomes ill, and then Nel realizes that friendship, not marriage, was the most important relationship of her life.

Sula's character is engimatic and not really likable, but she defies simplistic interpretation. Her determination to choose her own life, her daring and courage, especially for a woman of her era, have to be admired. At the conclusion, Morrison focus on Nel, who has seemed less complex. But "never was no difference between you and Sula," Sula's grandmother tells a stunned Nel. It's not black and white in Toni Morrison's world — no pun intended.


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