Sula - 2015 Reading Challenge

To my shame, I had never read a Toni Morrison novel before. I'm glad to say that I've rectified that now.

Sula is a short novella packed full of novel-sized characters and themes. The amount of emotion, story, and character that Morrison jams into this tiny book is truly amazing. I chose it as my "Book you can read in a day" because it's just a little slip of a thing, more like a long short story, and I did indeed read it in approximately 24 hours.

Despite its size, it is not easily forgotten.

Sula and Nel are childhood friends, growing up in the civil unrest of early 20th century Ohio. Sula explores their relationship throughout the years and the stories of the people close to them, including both of their mothers and Sula's grandmother, the matriarch of the family.

We see the deaths of friends, family, and children. Deaths by the hands of others, deaths by accident. The world these two girls grow up in is one of poverty and desperation, mixed together with childhood joys like friendship that are universal.

As they grow older and spend years at a time apart, the friendship between Sula and Nel is tested. Nel gets married and has children while Sula is off who-knows-where. When she returns to reunite with Nel, she brings a stigma back with her to the small town and quickly earns a reputation for sleeping with other women's husbands.

Surrounded by women who are telling her to settle down, get married, and have children, Sula stubbornly refuses to conform to the norms of the women she knows. "I don't want to make somebody else. I want to make myself" she says.

When Nel's husband leaves her, she lashes out and taunts Sula for being lonely in the life she's chosen. Sula replies, "Yes, but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely."

Sula is a story for anyone who has ever been an outsider, who has ever felt that people were looking at you and judging. I suppose that means Sula is a story for everyone. It shows the dangers of becoming hardened, even in the face of horrible circumstances, and the dangers of being too soft as well.

Like I said, it's a lot to cover in such a small novella, but it works. The other eye-opening part for me was viewing the world of an African American community in the 1920s and '30s. Hearing about these stories is one thing, but reading them through the eyes of someone who was there and feeling the things they feel is another.

And you can't argue with Morrison's gorgeous prose, either.

Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.

Feature image credit: Jay Ryness