“a small bench by the road”

(Feature article … Christian Courier, June 10th, 2013 issue)

Home - coverHome is an allusive word, instantly sparking childhood memories, familial connections and primal longings. Small wonder that Ikea’s slogan is “Long live the home” or that Tim Hortons sells coffee to the tune of the chart-topping “Home” by American Idol winner Phillip Phillips. The Home Hardware TV commercial with its cheery jingle, “Homeowners Helping Homeowners,” always twinges my conscience, however, implying that homeowners are, after all, a cut above. Tempted as I am by glossy décor magazines with their fantasy images of trendy homes, and invested as I am in my own home, I suspect that pride of home ownership might simply be an alias for idolatry.

I’m intrigued that two iconic female writers have chosen Home as the title for their most recent novels. Pulitzer-prize winning author Marilynne Robinson’s 2008 Home is masterful. The protagonist, Glory, returns to her childhood home, having ended a futile relationship with a married man. Caring for her ailing father and her alcoholic brother, and for the house itself, she both finds and demonstrates glory in her self-sacrificial love.

Last year African-American author Toni Morrison also published a novel called Home. A response to Robinson’s? Possibly. Both books are set in the south in the 1950s. Morrison’s characters inhabit a grim segregated landscape where police routinely check black men on the street for weapons in order to steal their money, a pastime so commonplace it barely warrants comment. While racism figures in Robinson’s novel as well, it’s viewed more comfortably from the genteel veranda of the Boughton home. Regardless of whether Morrison is deliberately referencing Robinson’s work, both authors are pointedly addressing our own culture – with its countless divorces, digitally-engrossed teens and cliff-hanging economic futures. Both novels are achingly poetic testaments about the pull of home and finding a place among your own people.

Unlike Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, an epic tale about a runaway slave, Home is surprisingly compressed, lean, terse. Characters are not immediately identified as black or white, but it’s still woefully easy to figure out the colour divide. Slavery is gone; its legacy remains.

The quest

Frank Money returns from the Korean War, deeply damaged. “You can’t imagine it because you weren’t there,” he tells an unnamed interviewer. As we follow him back to Lotus, Georgia, the home he couldn’t wait to leave, his undiagnosed, and as yet not medically-recognized, post-traumatic stress disorder is gradually revealed. He suffers from hallucinations, blackouts and fits of violence. He medicates himself with alcohol, his anguish stemming from the horrific deaths of his “homeboys,” two friends he couldn’t save in combat, and an even greater anguish about a secret crime. A cryptic note from his sister’s friend to come and get her because “she be dying” gives him a chance to redeem himself.

Frank and his sister Cee have always been close. “She was the first person I ever took responsibility for,” he says. Their parents were forced to flee their Texas home by “hooded” men when he was a child and Cee was still in his mother’s womb. A neighbour who refused to comply was strung up on the magnolia tree in his own yard. Those who snuck back to bury him under that same tree whispered that his eyes had been gouged out. The traumatic exodus unites the brother and sister, though it scars them for life.

The Money family (Frank notes the irony of their pennilessness) is reluctantly taken in by their father. He has married an avaricious widow, Lenore, who “owned her house” in Georgia. She seethes at the imposition. To Frank and Cee, she is a wicked witch who puts water on their cereal instead of milk and routinely switches their legs.

The stifling atmosphere in Lotus, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield,” leads Frank and his buddies to join the army. Cee also flees Lotus with “a rat” named Prince who marries her and then promptly abandons her in Atlanta. She finds employment with a white Confederate-sympathizing doctor who drugs her and practises “inventions” on her in the interest of eugenics. By the time Frank reaches her, Cee is dying of uterine hemorrhage. He brings her back to Lotus where the neighbourhood women save her life, but not her fertility.

As children, Frank and Cee once watched two stallions fight in a field. Frank recalls, “They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.” The scene cements itself in his memory. “They were so beautiful. And so brutal. And they stood like men.” That same night they also witness a black man being dumped in hole under cover of darkness by a gang of white men. The children are transfixed by terror and wait for hours before returning home, but no one has missed them because of a “disturbance.” Decades later, Frank discovers that what they saw was the result of a ghastly “dogfight,” a switchblade duel to the death between a black father and his son, compelled to fight for a crazed betting crowd. The father orders his son to kill him to bring the game to an end. It’s an unspeakable but seminal event in the lives of the black citizens of Lotus who do what they can to help the bloodied son escape.

Beloved takes place in the antebellum South, Home in post-WWII America, but the struggle is the same – an unconscionable depreciation of humanity based on race Are horses men? Are men horses? Or dogs? Frank escapes from a mental hospital and runs to the nearest black church for help. Rev. Locke commiserates: “An integrated army is integrated misery. You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better.” When Frank hallucinates, all colour drains from his vision and the world becomes a “black-and-white movie screen.” He wonders “if this is how dogs and cats and wolves see the world.” On his journey he meets a boy whose arm has been shot off by a white cop and asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. The boy replies gravely, “A man.” In that succinct answer lies the crux of the novel. What is a man? Who decides? Who is human and who is a brute beast?

At the end of novel, Frank and Cee dig up the bones of the man in the field and give him a proper burial under a wounded tree. For Frank, it’s a redemptive act. On the grave marker he writes “Here Stands A Man,” an inscription meant to honour the man killed for sport. But the incongruity of the verb “stands” instead of “lies” suggests a broader interpretation of the epigraph, one that encompasses Frank himself, the Texan neighbour who defied the KKK, the boy with one arm, and maybe even Christ. The women who nurse Cee back to health, for example, triumph over their circumstances with deep faith: “Some evil, they believed was incorrigible, so its demise was best left to the Lord. Other kinds could be mitigated. The point was to know the difference.”

In spite of growing next to a river called Wretched, the tree is thriving. To Frank, it looked “strong” and “beautiful.” It was “hurt right down the middle,” but was still “alive and well.” The tree is like the lotus, an exquisite flower rooted in the muck of ponds – vigor and beauty springing from the mire.

Coming home

Frank hated Lotus for its “unforgiving population, its isolation, and especially its indifference to the future.” But, when he is “frank,” when he finally confesses his secret shame, he finds healing there. Saving Cee in the nick of time marks the turning point, a happenstance that Cee’s friend Sarah attributes to supernatural intervention: “Thank God. Exactly the way old folks said: not when you call Him, not when you want Him; only when you need Him and right on time.” Frank believes he was “smart” to liberate Cee without violence, another clue to his transformation.

Cee, too, achieves healing. The women scold her: “You good enough for Jesus. That’s all you need to know.” They offer her love in their shared adversity, and she embraces their example of moral resilience. Frank realizes, “They delivered unto him a Cee that would never again need him.” The final treatment for Cee is “sun-smacking,” exposing her naked private parts to the sunshine for an hour ten days in a row. She is loath to do this, but Miss Ethel insists she needs a permanent cure: “the kind beyond human power.” Like Frank, Cee decides she belongs in Lotus.

Art and the capacity to imagine

“You can’t imagine Korea’s horror because you weren’t there,” seems a valid assertion. But authors don’t really believe that. Authors write, as Solzhenitsyn said, because “Art extends each man’s short time on earth by carrying from man to man the whole complexity of other men’s lifelong experience, with all its burdens, colour and flavour.” Art germinates and grows the imagination.

In a speech Morrison once decried the fact that “there’s no small bench by the road” to honor the memory of the anonymous multitude of slaves whose deaths went unrecorded. Galvanized by her remark, the Toni Morrison Society began a campaign to place benches at historically significant slavery sites. Her novel Home is itself another “small bench by the road,” a memorable work that helps us imagine, even though we weren’t there, the complexity of being black in America in the 50s.

Phillip Phillips sings, “If you get lost, you can always be found / Just know you’re not alone / I’m gonna make this place your home.” His catchy song speaks to the need to belong and the power of human love. As I grapple with my own middle class responsibilities, and idolatries, I place my hope in an even greater love: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

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