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BELOVED, by Toni Morrison
Published in 1987, BELOVED is Toni Morrison's fifth novel and the first in a loose historical trilogy that examines the African American experience in the century following the close of the Civil War. As the novel opens, a ghost is haunting the house at 124 Bluestone Road, in the country outside of Cincinnati. It is the Reconstruction era, and Sethe, a former escaped slave, is living with her aging mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and her 18-year-old daughter, Denver. There is no mystery about the identity of the ghost: it is the spirit of Beloved, the baby Sethe killed 18 years earlier. Sethe had believed the murder to be an act of mercy, committed in order to protect her child from life as a slave, but Beloved is still angry. "Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?" Sethe wonders, but shattered mirrors, smashed dishes, and forbidding pools of blood-red light have long been daily realities for her family, punishing reminders for Sethe of the guilt she carries for her murderous act. Sethe does her best to block out the excruciating -- by silent agreement with Baby Suggs, "unspeakable" -- memories of her prior life, "work[ing] hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe," but her brain does not always cooperate.

Complications arise after Paul D., one of the other slaves from Sethe's old plantation, arrives at the house with the hope of making a "real" family with Sethe, and seemingly manages to exile the ghost. A few days later, a beautiful and childish 20-year-old woman, who calls herself Beloved, walks out of a nearby lake and into the house on Bluestone Road. Attaching herself firmly to Sethe, she demands to be told about her past -- the past of her ancestors, and of Sethe herself -- and though the telling of these stories neither calms nor satiates her, she begins to grow fat, literally, on the words. As in her other novels, Morrison's characters are intricately constructed and highly individualized human portraits, but also imbued with a deep symbolic weight. Thus, just as Sethe must begin her regeneration through the act of confronting -- and reclaiming -- her history, so too, Morrison suggests, must not only blacks but all Americans: the cost of repressing the violence and racism in our past is simply to high to sustain.

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