Song of Solomon Book summary

Toni Morrison

Overview

About

Toni Morrison draws on several important 20th-century black history events throughout the course of her novel including the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing of 1963, and the change in tone of the civil rights protests under leaders like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. The novel is set in an African American setting, and the author draws on autobiographical elements to add depth to her characters. It is speculated that Macon Dead, is inspired by Morrison's grandfather, John Solomon Willis. He had been a successful land cropper that had been forced out of his land much like Macon Dead I, the grandfather of the protagonist of the book.

It is important to understand the history of African Americans immediately before the commencement of the civil rights movement that occurred during the timeframe for this book's setting. Black people had been liberated from enslavement at the end of the civil war in 1865, but a vast majority of them had chosen to remain in low-paying farm jobs in the south where segregation laws continued to exist even after emancipation. They were then affected by the depression of the 1930s, as several of them were forced to leave their farm jobs and seek economic opportunities in the urban areas of the country. This was then followed by the civil rights movement which began peacefully under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr but it soon gained a more forceful tone under the leadership of Malcolm X, which is a viewpoint that is explored through the character of Guitar.

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Plot Summary

Song of Solomon follows the story of a black man from youth to adulthood. He is called Macon Dead III and is born to Ruth Dead and Macon Dead II at Mercy Hospital in a Michigan town. Macon Dead III is born on the same day that Robert Smith, another black inhabitant of the town, jumps off a hospital building with the intent of flying over Superior Lake with his silk wings. Ruth Dead has two other daughters, Lena, and First Corinthians, from her husband Macon Dead II, who is a wealthy landlord in the region. Ruth and Macon Jr share a loveless marriage, but Ruth finds an escape in her son whom she breastfeeds well past infancy. She is forced to stop when Freddie, a janitor, witnesses her breastfeeding the four-year-old Macon and starts to call him Milkman. Macon Jr is a wealthy but callous man who cares little for the wellbeing of his tenants, and yet there is a gentle side to him that comes to the fore when he secretly spies on his sister's family, which includes his sister Pilate, her daughter Reba, and her granddaughter, Hagar.

Milkman is an odd child who seems to lose interest in the world when he is old enough to learn that only birds and planes are capable of flight. Macon Jr dislikes his sister for her poverty, and her lack of ambition, and attempts to keep her away from his son but this changes when Milkman turns twelve. Milkman befriends Guitar Bains, another black boy from the town, who leads him to Pilate's house where he meets her, Reba, and Hagar. Macon Jr learns of his son's visit and attempts to admonish him for not obeying him but he instead becomes engrossed in recollecting memories of his childhood as Milkman seeks to learn the origins of his family. Macon explains how his father, Macon Dead I, had been killed by wealthy individuals who had wanted his land, and that he had received his surname Dead due to the fault of a drunk union soldier. Macon Jr then invites Milkman to come work for him by collecting rent, and Milkman willingly agrees as the work would let him spend more time with Pilate, Hagar, Reba, and Guitar on their side of town. Milkman learns about Guitar's father, who had been killed in a sawmill accident, and how it led Guitar to hate white people as he compared them to all to the callous white owner of the sawmill.

He begins to realize that his father isn't well-liked across town, and so goes out of his way to prove that he is unlike his father in all ways but he realizes that he can never quite be like his father because one of his legs is shorter than the other. Milkman disguises his limp by strutting while walking, and though he wants to be nothing like his father, Milkman does his utmost to ensure that he completes all the work that his father assigns him. At 22, Milkman hits his father after he hits Ruth during a dinner table argument, Macon Jr explains how his mother had had a suspicious relationship with her father, Dr. Foster, who himself had been a rather bigoted individual. Milkman also recalls being breastfed by his mother late into his childhood and begins to realize that his mother has a life outside of being his parent. Guitar attempts to comfort Milkman by sharing with him the account of black youth who had recently been killed, but Milkman dismisses the account. Milkman realizes that he has never quite cared about money, sex, national politics, and the rampant racism against African Americans. 

Milkman begins dating Hagar at the age of 17, while she is 22 at the time, but Milkman soon begins to lose interest in her while she continues to love him ever deeper. Milkman finally decides to end his relationship with her at the age of 31, and Hagar becomes so furious that she decides to set out to murder him. Milkman also confronts Guitar, who has been behaving rather secretively, and he is horrified to learn that Guitar is a member of an extremist group called Seven Days. The group's members kill white people randomly when crimes against Black people go unpunished by the law, and they attempt to mirror both the day along with the manner of death when they kill their victims. Milkman tries to convince Guitar that randomly killing white people is cruel and racist but Guitar defends his group's actions by claiming that his group's actions prevented the white people from carrying out a genocide against black people. 

Milkman then thinks about his conversation with his mother, whom he had followed to her father's cemetery, and confronted her about their relationship. Ruth had explained that her relationship with her father had been very loving, but she also informed him how Macon Jr had denied her father medication that had led to his death. She further claimed that she had become pregnant with Milkman after she had administered an aphrodisiac to her husband with Pilate's help. Macon had tried to force her to abort the child but Pilate had stepped in to threaten her brother with a voodoo doll and had therefore saved Milkman's life. Milkman is interrupted from his reminiscence by the arrival of a knife-bearing Hagar who finds herself unable to kill him. Ruth learns about Hagar's murderous attempts and visits Pilate's house to put an end to them, but Pilate successfully diffuses the situation by talking about how she had been persecuted for lacking a navel and that she had chosen freedom over all else.

Milkman attempts to take a break from working for his father, and he happens to mention a green sack that Pilate keeps in her home. Macon Jr tasks Milkman with retrieving the sack as he explains that it contains gold that both he and Pilate had found in a cave when they had been escaping the white people who had killed their father. Macon Jr had killed a white man in the cave while defending himself and had found a huge pile of gold nuggets, but Pilate had prevented him from stealing it by claiming that they would not become thieves. Milkman decides to take Guitar's help, who is in dire need of money since he needs to avenge the death of black girls by killing white children of the same number. Guitar and Milkman rob Pilate of the green sack but they are discovered by the police who reveals that the sack contains a skeleton. Pilate rescues Milkman and Guitar from the police, but she later informs Macon Junior that the bones had belonged to the white man he had killed in the cave.

Macon Junior believes that the gold must still be in the cave and he dispatches Milkman to look for him, but instead of gold, Milkman learns the history of his family. He learns that his grandfather Macon Dead I, had been a well-to-do farmer in the region who had been an inspiration for other African Americans and that he had been one of Solomon's flying African children. He learns of an urban legend wherein Solomon had fathered 21 children, and then flown off to Africa, leaving his wife too mad to care for her children. Solomon had tried to along with his youngest son, Jake, but he had fallen from Solomon's hand and been discovered by Hyde Byrd. The old lady had raised Jake, who had later become Macon Dead I, along with her daughter Sing, and eventually, the two had left together to start their own family. Milkman learns this history from a variety of sources and is nearly killed by Guitar who has started to believe that Milkman has already found the gold and has chosen to keep it to himself due to greed.

Hagar remains behind in the town, but the rejection that she suffers at Milkman's hands causes her to eventually die while Milkman begins to discover his own identity and realize that he has mistreated Hagar. Milkman returns home to share the story of his family but he is bound by a vengeful Pilate, but Milkman manages to placate her when he tells her that she has been carrying the bones of her father rather than a white man, as he had been able to gather that information from listening to Circe, Macon and Pilate's midwife. Macon and Pilate travel to the same region to bury the bones of Macon Dead I, but Pilate is accidentally killed by a bullet that is aimed at Milkman from Guitar's hands. In the final moments of the book, Milkman understands that you can control the winds if you surrender to them.

  • Author(s)

    Toni Morrison
  • Publication date

    1977

  • Language

    English

  • Classification

    Adventure Fiction, Bildungsroman Magical Realism

  • Pages

    337

Keywords

African American Literature, Racism, Identity

Publisher

Penguin Books

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