Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sula by Toni Morrison

Sula by Toni Morrison
Plume, 1973
Fiction; 174 pgs

Completed: 06/26/2007
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.

Reason for Reading: It has been years since I read my first Toni Morrison book, The Bluest Eye. Sula was a gift from my parents, and although I had every intention of getting to it, it sat on my TBR shelf for 2 ½ years. It became one of my choices for the TBR Challenge because I felt it was time I got to it. This is my 6th selection for the TBR Challenge and my 7th for the Reading Through the Decades Challenge.

Comments: The novel Sula paints a vivid picture of a black neighborhood known as Bottom even though it is set high in the hills of Medallion, Ohio. Toni Morrison's writing is beautiful. She captures a moment, a person, and a mood so eloquently, sometimes with imagery and at other times quite bluntly. Sula is rich in complexity, satire and all the while tragic.

Sula is one of those novels that inspires analysis and discussion, and it is no wonder it is a favorite as required reading for literature courses in the United States. The novel weaves several different themes throughout the story, including that of racism, motherhood, friendship, and values.

Racism was rampant during the time period the book is set, beginning in 1919 and ending in 1965. As Nel travels by train with her mother, Helene Wright, from Ohio to New Orleans to visit Helene's dying grandmother, I was struck by the contrast between the train stations the further south the two traveled. Although segregated, the train stations at the beginning of their journey had restroom facilities for everyone. By the time Nel and Helene drew closer to their destination, the facilities for blacks were non-existent. Instead, they were expected to go out in a field. Other hints of racism were sprinkled throughout the novel, impossible to ignore.

The contrast between the lifestyles of the two friends, Nel and Sula, is extreme. Nel comes from a strict and proper upbringing, raised by a mother who was traditional. Sula had a much different childhood, living with her matriarchal grandmother who was strong and eccentric. Sula's own mother was loose with her child just as she was with the men. Nel and Sula's attraction to each other seemed natural, despite their differences. They had similar natures, both seeking escape from their own realities and finding in each other the part of themselves that they desired most to be like.

Even with the years of separation after Sula disappeared from Medallion, upon her return the two women picked up their friendship where they had left off. They settled into each other’s lives and hearts as if nothing had changed. And yet it had. Nel was married with children. She had adopted a similar life to that of her mother, a more traditional lifestyle. Sula wanted no part of that kind of life, enjoying her independence, and not wanting to have to rely on anyone or have anyone rely on her, a lesson she learned early in life. This would ultimately cause a rift between the two friends and tear their friendship apart.

I am in awe at how gifted a writer Toni Morrison is. She captured the essence of the era, the town, the neighborhood and her characters in all their complexity. Sula is the most complex of all of the characters. She fights against tradition, setting her own path. Unlike her grandmother who was a respected woman in the community and her mother who, while a free spirit herself, had a complacency about her that endeared people to her, Sula instead earned their wrath. Her confidence and arrogance seemed to spurn others in the community. Yet there is a naivety in Sula, buried deep down and difficult to see.

Sula is not a novel that should be rushed through (which is unfortunately what I did); there is a deeper meaning behind so many of the events that take place within the novel. The imagery and symbolism make this book a literature course gold mine. I read this novel for the sheer pleasure of it, not as a scholarly endeavor, and as you can see, my thoughts about the book reflect that. Overall, I enjoyed the novel and perhaps will one day reread it and appreciate it even more.

Favorite Part: The writing itself is one of the best parts of this novel. I cannot stress that enough.

Aside from that, one of my favorite characters was Shadrack, who readers are introduced to almost immediately. He is a war veteran who had been greatly affected by the war, watching those around him die. He is an eccentric character, not one that ignites warm and fuzzy feelings, but is an enigma. He walks through town with a cowbell every January 3rd, the day he has designated as National Suicide Day. While the townsfolk shake their heads in disgust and wonder, the day takes on a special significance even to them, although perhaps not with the same intent that Shadrack had in mind.

The story of how the 3 Deweys came about is another favorite part for me. The three boys were orphans that Eva Peace, Sula’s grandmother, took in, each unrelated and looking nothing alike and yet no one could tell them apart. They were an interesting set of characters, although relatively minor.

Note about the Author: Although not a personal website for the author, Anniina has set up a website that includes a bibliography of all of Toni Morrison’s work as well as links to interviews with the author and biographies. Take a look!


  1. I have never read anything by Toni Morrison, but I picked "Beloved" for the Book Awards challenge. I am very glad that you said your favourite thing about the book was her writing, because that will show in the rest of her work too.

    Doing the Southern Reading Challenge has exposed me to a lot of literature in which racism is portrayed. I've come to realize that I really like books that deal with this issue. First because they tend to be very human and moving stories, and secondly because.. it's important that people don't forget. If we forget mankind is capable of, it is more likely that those mistakes will be repeated. And also because unfortunately that issue is not completely in the past.

    I will read Beloved first, but I'm adding Sula to my TBR as well. Thank you for the wonderful review.

  2. I read Beloved probably 15 years ago, and I loved it--especially Morrison's writing style. Somehow I haven't read anything else by Morrison, though her books have been on my list perpetually. Maybe this will give me the push I need--thanks for the great review!

  3. Nymeth - I have not yet read Beloved, but I hope to. I'll be anxious to read what you think of it when you read it.

    I am drawn to books that deal with prejudice, I've noticed too, including racism. As you suggested, it's an ongoing problem that we need to continue to address be it through our reading and our actions.

    Gentle Reader - I know what you mean. I had been meaning to read another of Morrison's books after reading The Bluest Eye years ago, but I am just now getting around to it. Hopefully I won't take so long to read my next Toni Morrison book!

  4. It's lovely when a book is great for the writing style alone. I am looking forward to reading Beloved this year as my first book by Morrison.

  5. I had to read this book for college and I recall not particularly enjoying it - but I think I need to give Morrison another chance, or two, or three - Courtney

  6. I just love Toni Morrison. I remember the day in college when I started this book (not for a class). I woke up in the morning, started the book, and just never got up! It was so good I just stayed there in bed reading until I was done. And of course the part about the three Deweys is a favorite. ;)

  7. Rhinoa - I agree, although an interesting story makes it even more worthwhile. :-)

    Courtney - Before picking up Sula to read, almost everyone I know who had read it didn't care for it. So, you aren't alone. Maybe you would like one of her other books.

    Dewey - It's wonderful when a book puts us so easily under it's spell, isn't it? I love it when that happens. :-)

  8. I've never read Toni Morrison either. I really need to make time for one of her books

  9. I agree that this book needs to be discussed. I read it in a Toni Morrison class I took in college. *sigh* I miss those fun classes and discussions.

  10. Kristy - Toni Morrison is a talented writer. I do hope you will enjoy her writing as much as I have.

    Niki - Yes, this seems like a great discussion book. I sometimes miss those classes too, although not the exams and paper writing. LOL

  11. I want to read a Morrison just hasn't made its way into my hands yet. :) You really made her writing seem special.

  12. Joy - It's hard for me to know which one you should start with since I've only read two of her books. Not everyone enjoys Toni Morrison's writing, I know. I do think she's a great writer, personally though.

  13. I agree Morrison writes very well, but I didn't personally care for this book. I felt like she was trying to attack too many things without suggesting anything positive in their place. It seemed only negative.

  14. Veronica - I know this particular book got a lot of mixed reviews. Before I started reading it, I seemed to only come across negative ones and so I worried that I would end up hating it. I see what you mean about the book being negative. It was certainly that. I found it fitting though considering the story and all that was going on, the death of the town, included. It seemed to be just a part of the overall theme of the novel that Morrison was trying to capture. I kind of wish I had the benefit of an literature course to discuss this one as I read it. I feel like I missed some things that would have helped along the way.

  15. I commend you for your review, Wendy, it is beautifully written. I read "The Bluest Eye" a couple of years ago and without a doubt I would have to say it is one of the best books I have ever read. Not surprisingly, I wanted to read more of Toni Morrison after that, but try as I might, none of her other books "Love", "Beloved", "Song of Solomon" etc. got me hooked. I haven't tried reading "Sula" yet, but your review certainly makes me want to. Thank you!

  16. Lotus - Thank you so much! That's nice of you to say. :-) The Bluest Eye is the other Toni Morrison book I've read and it made a big impression on me. I liked it better than Sula, although I think Sula was good as well. I hope to get to Beloved one day in the next few months and then perhaps some of her other works.

  17. I am taking a class right now which focuses on Toni Morrison's novels. We are reading them from the first written to the last and I have to say that there is a distinct development in her style of writing, even though her vivid imagery remains ever present.

    I've read all the way from The Bluest Eye to Jazz and my favorite so far is Song of Solomon. It embraces African folklore and builds an elaborate story based on it, which I find absolutely fascinating. I also found Tar Baby to be quite enjoyable along with, as almost everyone else here would agree, The Bluest Eye.

    I highly recommend that if you don't like one novel, try another. Each of her books are different yet beautifully told.


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