On My Bookshelf: "Paradise" by Toni Morrison

"Paradise" by Toni MorrisonI have a huge fear of most Toni Morrison books. 

I fondly remember the first time I ever held one in my hands and relished its rhythmic prose style and ever-changing storyline, and can remember her Song of Solomon keeping me entertained for hours on end. I also remember staying up way past my bedtime (I was still in high school when I discovered it) to finish the novel. 

I was an instant fan of The Bluest Eye for many reasons, but one reason stands out above all: the novel reduced me to tears. Then I tackled Beloved (amid all of the hype that came along with the 1998 release of its film adaptation) and, sadly, the magic died there. About 2/3 of the way into the novel, I stopped reading. And while it’s true that I did pick up Morrison from time to time through the years (I read Sula, reread Song of Solomon, etc.), I believed wholeheartedly that I would never look at Morrison with the same reverence again.

Fast forward to 2011: I read Morrison once more. And I loved it. 

Critics have often likened Paradise to works released by other highly celebrated authors. Anna Mulrine, in a review written in 1998 for the U.S. News and World Report, highlighted her work as a cross between “the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the convoluted plotting of William Faulkner.”  (Duly noted…and I agree.) Paradise worked for me, though, simply because of the story it tells. Set primarily in the and early-to-mid 1970s, it focuses on the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma—a town founded by a set of African-American “pioneers” (at least, this is how many of their descendants see them) in an effort to begin anew, and after being turned away by inhabitants of another town. For them, the town functions as a sort of “paradise” where they govern themselves according to their own rules and the moral code necessitated by their religious faith. Things start to go awry, though, as time passes and “outside” influences, such as the increasing popularity of the “Black Power” movement, begin to come into play. Also believed to be a contributing factor to the changing community is the influence of the women who live at the Convent, a large house on the outskirts of town that has housed both nuns and gamblers in the past. These women become associated with their vices as much as their pain, so people automatically begin to associate them with the impending downfall of all that the community has built over the last century. 

Ultimately, Paradise left me in awe of the skill that Morrison has with painting pictures using words, and wanting to know more about the characters that she creates. If what I’ve described thus far sounds interesting, you should definitely take a look at this gem. Enjoy!

--by Mack Simon Jr.