[WARNING: While we don’t blame you for wanting to spend all of your time hanging out on Shmoop, we must say right off the bat that we have serious reservations about how to provide a good detailed plot summary for Song of Solomon. It’s a nearly impossible task. This book moves, changes, sings, and dips in and out of various characters’ brains, and it certainly does not believe in linearity. Song is more loaded than a stereogram, and more alive than Hogwarts. So, we give you the best advice when we say, Go read it right now. Because, try as we might, what follows is just an attempt at nailing down the plot of a book that refuses to be nailed down.]
We begin on top of Mercy hospital where an insurance agent named Robert Smith, who works for a black insurance company, is about to jump off of the roof of the hospital.
It’s the 13th of February, 1931 around 3pm. We don’t know exactly where we are – but we know we’re in a city near Lake Superior, because Mr. Smith promises to fly across the lake.
It's in the middle of the day during the work week, so all kinds of people (by all kinds we mean the unemployed, babies, or the school-skipping Bart Simpsons) are watching his blue-winged frame (he’s wearing blue silk wings, of course) from below on Not Doctor Street.
Yes, it’s called Not Doctor Street. We learn that it was once widely known as Doctor Street because it was home to the first black doctor in the city. Then city officials got mad because people were sending mail to "Doctor Street" instead of to the street’s official name, "Mains Street." They posted signs saying henceforth the street would be called "Mains Street and Not Doctor Street." The street then became commonly known as Not Doctor Street. Hehe. You still with us?
Included among this suicide-watching audience is the pregnant daughter of this first black doctor, as well as her two daughters, a singing woman dressed like a bag lady, a little boy named Guitar, and Guitar’s grandmother.
The hospital is a white hospital, meaning only white people are treated there. The audience watching this "show" is predominantly black.
When she sees Mr. Smith on the roof, the pregnant woman drops a basket full of red velvet flowers and they scatter on the snow – her daughters scramble to pick them up.
The nurses and doctors see the crowd forming outside and are worried a protest by a "racial-uplift" group is forming. They come outside to see what the ruckus is about. They see Mr. Smith and pandemonium ensues.
An uber-annoying nurse demands of an old lady that she tell her child to run and fetch the hospital guard. The old lady tells her that the child’s name is "Guitar." The nurse is confused. She commands Guitar to go get the hospital guard underneath a sign that spells Admissions, but she spells "Admissions" wrong, and Guitar notices.
Firemen are summoned.
Just as the singing woman tells the pregnant doctor’s daughter to expect her baby the following day, Mr. Smith loses his balance and jumps off the hospital roof, and we are led to believe that at that moment the pregnant daughter goes into labor. She becomes the first black person to be treated in Mercy Hospital, where her son is born the following day.
Fast-forward four years, and we are suddenly in a twelve-roomed house, which is actually the doctor’s old house, where his daughter, formerly known as Ruth Foster, and her husband, Macon Dead, live with their two daughters, First Corinthians Dead and Magdalene Dead, and their only son, Macon Dead, Jr. We are not making this up, people.
Ruth’s society friends are eating sticky sunshine cake in the dark house’s parlor and Macon, Jr. slips away. He sneaks past his eerie sisters who are still making red velvet flowers in their room.
Ruth says goodbye to the last of her friends and begins to get dinner ready. We learn this is no walk in the park because Macon Dead, Sr. is kind of an ogre. He loves to criticize as much as Simon Cowell and inspires fear in everybody; Ruth works herself up so horribly as a result that her meals always go awry.
We learn that Ruth has only two pleasures in her life: staring at the grey watermark on her dining room table and breastfeeding her son.
Wait, wait, wait. But this is four years after the birth of her son, and that, by our calculations, means that her son is four years old. Which means that Ruth is still breastfeeding a four-year-old?
Yup. Ruth likes to breastfeed him in a quiet green room in the late afternoon, when her husband’s still at work. But when Freddie the janitor sees her one day through the window, Ruth drops her son on the ground out of shock and fear and, from then on, Ruth is left with only a watermark to make her happy. Macon, Jr. is left with his first and only nickname: Milkman.
Fortunately, Macon, Sr. never hears how Milkman gets this name. Nobody tells him because everyone’s scared of him. The only person who isn’t scared of him is his sister, who he hates more than he hates his wife and who he hasn’t seen since Milkman was born. So he assumes that the whole nickname thing is his wife’s fault.
Macon, Sr. doesn't like his wife at all. They haven’t slept together for a long time. Ever since he saw her sucking a dead man’s fingers. But that’s all we hear about right now.
Macon, Sr. is walking to his office, fondling his keys to his many houses, and thinking about the names in his family. His father, Macon Dead, got his name mistakenly from a drunken Yankee soldier, and the name had been passed down to the two generations of men that followed. The ladies in the family got their names through a ritual in which a pin is stuck into a Bible and the name that falls closest to the pin is granted to the namee.
We learn that Macon Sr.’s sister is named Pilate, as in the Pilate who allowed Jesus' execution. Her dad chose this name, kept the name, and wrote it on a tiny piece of paper even though he could not read or write. Pilate put the name in a little box which she hangs from her ear.
This book is so awesome. Go read it right now.
Macon, Sr. sure is walking down memory lane. He recalls having Pilate show up around the time of his son’s birth after not having seen her since he was sixteen years old. He remembers being embarrassed by her unkempt, bootlegging ways. One day, while she was watching baby Milkman sleep, Macon banished her from his house. Four years later, he still hasn’t seen her.
Macon arrives at his office after all that reminiscing. A woman named Mrs. Bains is waiting for him with two grandsons. She’s two months behind on paying Macon-the-landlord her 4-dollar-a-month rent. She tells Macon she’s fallen on hard times raising two boys without a husband.
Macon tells her she has until this coming Saturday to pay rent. If she can’t make it, he’ll put her on the street.
Macon starts thinking about his beloved keys again, when Freddie the gold-toothed town crier knocks on the window and tells him that one of his tenants, Henry Porter, is hanging out drunk in an attic window proclaiming to the world he has to kill somebody, namely himself.
Macon and Freddie go check it out. Indeed Porter is bellowing from the attic, giving the world an ultimatum: "Send me up somebody to f***! […] Send me up somebody, I tell ya, or I’ma blow my brains out!" (1.1.25).
As luck would have it, there happen to be prostitutes nearby. They goad him as Macon calls up to Porter for his rent money. Porter urinates on Macon.
Porter continues to bellow about love and the weight of love for a few more hours until he passes out. Freddie goes to pick his pockets for rent money.
On his way home, Macon decides to take a shortcut. He passes by Pilate’s house, reminisces about her navel-less stomach, and then he hears Pilate, Reba (Pilate's daughter), and Hagar (Reba’s daughter) singing.
Like a sailor resisting the Sirens, he pushes onward past the beautiful voices. But then he thinks about the gloomy family that waits for him and he walks back to Pilate’s house.
He watches them from their window as they go about their domestic tasks. Even when they stop singing, he can’t stop watching them. They are peaceful.