Book Review: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Autumn Leaf Table Quilt or, What My Husband Will Never Understand

Book Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Outlaw women are fascinating—not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men...In Sula I wanted to explore the consequences of what that escape might be, on not only a conventional black society, but on female friendship.   ~Toni Morrison

Some books are only stories. There isn't a degradation meant by the word "only," because any given book can be only a story to one person and a work that changes everything, or changes one small thing in a way that reflects upon everything, to another person. It's not necessarily the work itself (although it also is; I don't, for example, read many bodice rippers but I have a hard time imagining that many of them are more than only stories) but what we bring to it, what our psyches need, what our histories are complicated by, what our presents are demanding. You find a truth about yourself in books that are more than only stories, and you leave something of yourself there, too.

SulaI first read Toni Morrison's novel Sula when I was working on my English degree at BYU. I don't remember, now, exactly what class it was for, but I read it out of my Norton Anthology of American Literature rather than a regular book. What I do remember most vividly: Eva taking care of baby Plum in the outhouse, her finger coated with the last of the lard. I remember reading that and feeling astounded and terrified, because I wasn't sure I could ever do what she did. But other images also stayed with me: Eva and Nel traveling south until there are no more bathrooms for Black people and Eva's humiliation and gradual acceptance of squatting in the fields by the train stations. Eva's one lovely leg in its elegant shoe.  Shadrack in the military hospital and the way he leaves, his circuitous path through the grass, and the way he finds his way back to some version of himself that can at least exist in the world with useful hands. And, most profoundly, I remember the feeling of Nel and Sula's friendship.

Whenever someone asks me about Toni Morrison, I always recommend Sula as a good introduction to her work and as a sort of epistle on friendship. It isn't a syrupy, Hallmark-movie kind of friendship, but a real one, with both difficulties and connections.

What did I bring to this work then, the first time I read it? I was in the middle of my twenties, having gotten married far too young after a traumatic and tumultuous adolescence. I had embedded myself deep in the religion I had earlier rebelled against and I was trying to fit in that mold. I was also aspiring to be the best mother I could. Except, deep down, I knew I did not fit. I loved being a mom, I loved my children as babies and as toddlers, I loved that my life had brought me a husband and a house and these new beings. But always there was a tug, a sadness, a feeling that I had missed something. I couldn't name it then—I can name it now, but only painfully because I cannot get it back. I was propelled, in ways I am only now beginning to understand, by a compulsion to prove I was good after all of those years of rebelling, to my mother, to God, maybe even to myself. My aspirations—to go to college, to get a PhD, to become a writer and a professor—didn't fit in the definition of "good Mormon woman" and so I muted them until the opportunity to follow those dreams ended out of the sheer, relentless pace of time and circumstances and how my life changed, and how my life changed me.

That is what I brought to Sula when I first read it, and so I think I could only allow myself to see the friendship part of it. And it is about friendship, as evidenced partly by Sula's dying realization that she wanted to tell Nel about her own death, and about Nel's realization that she had been missing Sula all along. Despite the damage they did to each other, they still have their connection. That is what I took from the novel, what I kept with me during the twenty-five years that came after I read it: in the end, your real friends always love you, even if the friendship itself is too fractured to be visible as a friendship.

When Toni Morrison died this year, I decided I would reread Sula​, and somehow I thought that my flight to Denver would be a great time to start it. The couple next to me would likely disagree, as while I did manage to do it quietly, this rereading broke something in me that caused a huge lump to swell in my throat and a whole river of tears to fall onto the pages. It was a devastating, painful book to read at this point in my life, where I am striving to see what is real and to not blind myself out of fear. I am bringing an entirely different self to this reading.

Sure: this is a novel about friendship. But what I can relate to now, as a person nearing 50 who feels like she only has one more chance to create a life without that sadness and sense of loss, is entirely different. What hit me most profoundly was Eva's relationship with her son Plum, and how she kills him, and why. This is because what I saw on this reading is the subtle thread of commentary on relationships between mothers and their adult children. It is there in the scene with Eva and Plum, when she has been entirely drained of her ability to offer him refuge and it is there in the explanation for why Jude marries Nel: to have a place for comfort. "He needed some of his appetites filled, some posture of adulthood recognized, but mostly he wanted someone to care about his hurt…And if he were to be a man, that someone could no longer be his mother."  How do mothers and adult sons interact? What do mothers continue to give their adult sons? How do we make a place for them in the world when they are struggling to make it on their own? How do we let go? (Mirrored in the letting-go of Chicken Little's hands by Sula.)

This isn't a major theme in the novel, but it is part of what caused my throat to swell, because it is a part of a larger theme I didn't see (or couldn't) the first time I read it. In a sense, Sula and Nel stand as symbols for two choices women can make: Nel's traditional choice, Sula's "outlaw woman" choice. And while neither character is exactly me (nor do I need them to be), I find pieces of myself in both of them. In a sense, I am Nel, doing the traditional (and, in my religion, the expected) thing of getting married and having and raising children. Like Nel, I have found happiness in these choices. But I also have some of Sula in me. Maybe it is, in fact, the Sula part that has been the kernel of the unhappiness I've also felt. That I didn't choose to be an outlaw woman.

Early in the novel, we read that Nel's mother works hard to strip all of the imagination from her daughter, so that she can neatly conform. When she becomes friends with Sula, though—that choice of becoming friends itself an act of rebellion—she gets back some of her creativity, her wildness, but it doesn't seem that she ever pushes back against following the norm. She just marries Jude and has his children, and it isn't until Nel sleeps with him that she fully sees her life had joy in it. Sula cannot see it; she doesn't really even understand why her having sex with Jude is upsetting to Nel. "The narrower their lives, the wider their hips," she thinks. "Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people skinned dreams and bony regrets…had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles."

As I read this, I pictured my 25-year-old self, who thought she could have everything she wanted. Who thought she could be both Nel and Sula, traditional and outlaw. As in a photo collage, I also saw myself now, nearing fifty, feeling like I didn't succeed at anything: the outlaw tug kept me from being a good-enough mother (and without a doubt a good-enough Mormon) and the traditional place I put myself kept me forever away from my outlaw self. Has my life been narrow? Has all my sweetness been sucked away?

My outlaw self says yes.

My Nel self remembers and knows there has been joy here.

But like Nel at the end, lamenting—that fine cry that had "no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow," there isn't an answer. There isn't a black-and-white, clear-cut thing I can take from this novel. Nor from my life and where I find myself in it now. I am learning to embrace and comfort my Nel self and I am also feeling a turning toward my Sula self, who I have pretended didn't exist for far too long.

In the edition I purchased, there is a foreword by Toni Morrison, in which she writes that

Hannah, Nel, Eva, Susla were points of a cross, each one a choice for characters bound by gender and race. The nexus of that cross would be a merging of responsibility and liberty difficult to reach, a battle among women who are understood to be least able to win it…and the only possible triumph was that of the imagination.

 (I know I am not even discussing here the issues of race, know I am in some sense conscripting a Black story into my white one and that that is objectionable, but what I have written is what I can bring to it today.)

I went back and reread the foreword after I had finished the novel. And I felt my Sula self stir. I am Nel, laughing with her children, in love with her husband in both complicated and simple ways, walking down the busy road to visit Eva. I am the Nel who is troubled and influenced by Sula. But I also want to be Sula. Not the Sula who ruins friendships by failing to understand marriage, but the Sula who tells her mother "I don't want to make somebody else. I want to make myself."

I want to make myself, too.



You are only 50. Possibly half way. You are a writer. You have time to write a book now. You could go for that PhD. Why not? Take the first step on that path. And even if it doesn’t go all the way to a pHd, you moved. Otherwise, you will only be thinking these thoughts a year from now. And you will be 51.

Go on, at least find out what you need to do and apply.

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