Where It All Goes Down
The Southside district in a city near Lake Superior; Danville, Pennsylvania; Shalimar, Virginia
Setting in Song of Solomon is as important as candy is in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The city near Lake Superior is never named, but we assume it is Detroit, Michigan. We as readers spend all of our time in Southside/Not Doctor Street, a predominantly black community. We have awkward dinners in the Deads’ big, ornate house. We go to Mary’s, where the beer runs free, the loonies can be their loony selves, the prostitutes can work peacefully, and where Milkman and Guitar can philosophize about life. We also hang out at the barbershop owned by Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy, listening to the news on the radio and talking politics with the men assembled there. The beauty parlor is close by, but the blinds are always drawn, and we only see its insides once, when Hagar tries to arrange a hair appointment. We visit Pilate’s two-room house/wine bar on Darling Street, a modest home with almost no furniture, no locks, and no blinds on the windows. There’s also Mercy Hospital, where we begin the novel and from whose roof we watch a man jump. The hospital is initially a white hospital, treating only white patients. We get to see Guitar’s one-room bachelor pad and Henry Porter’s attic room in a building owned by Macon Dead. Lastly, in another part of town, we are shown Michael-Mary Graham’s poetic dwelling, where she likes to collect objects and things that sound cool and poetical, even if they aren’t cool and poetical.
Next we travel by airplane and Greyhound bus to get to Danville, Pennsylvania, a tiny, one-street town in rural Pennsylvania. The bus depot sells cheeseburgers, nails, bus tickets, and other such delicious things. Here in Danville, the people are really friendly. You ask them a question, and, even if they don’t know the answer, they’ll send you to someone who does. Or they’ll give you a ride and a coke, even though you are a stranger to them. Like Reverend Cooper, the holy man who drinks rye whiskey in his little yellow house and who will take you in and treat you like family just because he once (many moons ago) knew of your dad and your aunt. His wife will cook you a lavish feast, and his nephew will drive you into the woods so that you can go cave-hunting. Once there, you’ll meet a mythical creature named Circe with a pack of Weimaraner dogs, all of which roam free in a decaying mansion that is being eaten by ivy. Slap on your hiking boots and your fanny pack, and get ready to get your hike on through the thick, green wilderness of Pennsylvania. Just before you leave Danville, be sure to stop by the freight yard to help put a crate on a dolly.
Finally, let’s go south to Virginia. We need to find a town that sounds like Charlemagne. Stop in Culpepper and several other towns along the way. Ask for direction from the locals. No one’s heard of Charlemagne? AAA finds a town not found on the maps called Shalimar. Charlemagne … Shalimar … hmm. This could be promising. Let’s go there. Oh wait, your car is breaking down. Here’s a nice little roadside stop. We can stop here, ask for help with the car and see if anyone knows where this Shalimar place is. Surprise! This is Shalimar. No place to stay, so you’ll have to sleep in your car. The locals don’t take to kindly to you domineering, BMOC ways, and they’re not adverse to a fight. Have a little scuffle with the locals. They might invite you to go hunting in the mountain wilderness in the dark of night. Definitely, say yes. You’ll hear the howl of a weeping woman, but that is just the wind hitting Ryna’s gulch. Afterwards, you’ll enjoy a nice breakfast at the used-to-be gas station, which is now an unofficial hunter’s club. You find you can stay with Sweet, a prostitute, in her little cottage, and the next morning you might want to visit Susan Byrd, a local who lives in a decaying house with a white picket fence carved out of the Blue Ridge woods. No trip to Shalimar would ever be the same without stopping at Solomon’s Leap, the rock from which it is supposed that Milkman’s great-grandfather leapt into the sky and flew off to Africa.