In A Nutshell
You might need to sit down for this one.
A mother slits her baby girl's throat because she has this deranged idea that she's saving her daughter from a fate worse than death. Sounds like one of those crazy mothers who ends up on the evening news, right? Close. It's actually a true story: back in 1856, a runaway slave named Margaret Garner killed one of her kids—a two-year-old girl—with a butcher knife, in order to keep her away from slave catchers. She would have killed her other children and herself, too, but she was caught before she could complete the deed.
And there you have the starting point for Beloved. Yep—this is one of those "based on a true story" books. But since the author is none other than the esteemed, Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison, you better believe that the book is way more than that story.
So here's what you absolutely need to know about Beloved. The book is about a slave woman, Sethe, who—before the book even begins—kills her baby girl in order to keep her away from slave catchers. That baby girl, called Beloved, ends up haunting the house in which Sethe and her youngest child Denver live. And by "haunt," we don't mean some limp, pale ghost hanging out in the corner who occasionally says "Boo!" This girl ain't no Casper. She throws stuff around like a second coming of Poltergeist. And then some. Like come-back-from-the-dead, possess-you-like-a-demon haunting.
But Beloved isn't really a horror story. It's more like a Great American Novel. In fact, when it was first published in 1987, it sealed Toni Morrison's reputation as one of the hottest new novelists of the decade—if not the century. The novel was so popular that it won the Pulitzer Prize in '87. We're guessing that the book also played a pretty big part in the decision to award Morrison the Nobel Prize just a few years later (1993 to be exact). As far as book awards go, that's a clean sweep.
Beloved is a story about America's relationship with slavery, but it's also a story about rebirth and redemption for those who seem irredeemable. Grand, right? Well, that's just how Toni Morrison rolls.
Why Should I Care?
Morrison takes the whole issue of slavery and turns it on its head. By writing Beloved about the period after slavery—when everything ought to have been hunky-dory—we're forced to think about other issues. Issues like what stories we choose to remember and (re)tell; what stories we choose to pass down and turn into our own histories; what stories we choose to define as American history.
Beloved makes you think of the forgotten stories, all those little-known pieces that make up who we are as a nation whether we know it or not.
But hey, if you're just in for a bone-chilling, spine-tingling, hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck sort of read, Beloved is good for that, too. After all, how often can you spend a few hours reading about a creepy woman raised from the dead and still call yourself a literary snob?