First aired on Writers & Company (13/5/12)
Toni Morrison is one of the most celebrated American writers alive today. A recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and twice an Oprah book club selection, Morrison's work has touched a nerve in the American psyche. Her novels, often christened with one word titles, have a sensuous approach to language and its resonance and a love of the rhythms of jazz. They are also filled with great passion and great violence.
Her latest novel, her tenth, is called Home. It revolves around 24-year-old Frank Money, a veteran of the Korean War who returns to racist America after fighting for his country and enduring trauma on the front lines. Despite the abuse he encounters, he finds the strength and tenderness to rescue his sister and take her back to the home, a small town in Georgia, that he's always hated.
Morrison chose to set Home in the 1950s because she was frustrated with the contradictory place that the 1950s seem to hold in American history. We tend to remember the 1950s as "the golden age." The American economy was doing well, the GI Bill was sending soldiers to college and television was filled with happy, prosperous families like the Cleavers on Leave It to Beaver.
But that's not how Morrison remembers that time period. Born in 1931, she came of age during this era and instead recalls the Korean War, where 40,000 American soldiers lost their lives, the McCarthy era, when everyone was terrified of communism, and the rampant and often violent racism. "Those were major things that seem to have been erased from our history," Morrison told Eleanor Wachtel in a recent interview.
Morrison also wanted to explore what it means to be a war veteran, to have survived and deal with those terrible memories. It's difficult to understand the effects of war on a person. Even medicine and psychology are only recently beginning to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a real diagnosis with real ramifications. Morrison pointed out that there is an underlying assumption in society that, as a veteran of war, Frank Money, like many other vets, "would be secure." Instead, "he's traumatized. We called it shell-shocked back then," she explained. "He really hasn't come to terms with the death of his buddies and also with his own savagery in the war."
Many other factors play into Frank's journey, both in psychological terms, as he comes to grips with what he's lived through, and in physical terms, as he moves back to his family home in a small Georgia town to help his sister, who is also struggling with inner demons. Reaching out and coming back into the fold of his family "helps him come through his own wall of denial and blaming other people for what is in him," Morrison said.