Paradise by Toni Morrison

paradiseThey shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.

These chilling lines always appear on lists of the greatest first lines in literature, and always piqued my interest, but for some reason never led me to pick up Paradise. Until now. Which is a shame because it is really fucking good.

The all-black town of Ruby exists for reasons of virtue. Work ethic, godliness, community. Its founders, following the collapse of Reconstruction, were reduced from governors to street sweepers. Fleeing the abstract, omnipresent violence of whites and turned away from other black towns for being too black, they continued their Biblical journey to settle in the middle of the Oklahoma prairie. A generation later, their descendants are continuing their legacy, but failing to create their own; events in the real world are pulling their children away. A die-hard devotion to the old ways reveals the flaws in their patriarchal wisdom, and frustrated at the erosion of their status and control, they direct their ire outward, at undeserving targets, and yes, you guessed it, the oppressed become the oppressors.

Outside of Ruby lies the ‘Convent’, formerly a wealthy embezzler’s estate, then a re-education religious school for native girls, it has now become a home for lost women, fleeing predatory life situations and, though they don’t know it, desperately in need of the company of other women. These are the subjects of the first lines of the book, targeted for their free approach to sex and dress, paganism, and especially their independence from men. Their names mark the chapters of the book. These relate their their stories and how they arrived at the Convent, and are interspersed with the history and points of view of the citizens of Ruby, as unrest builds toward the shootout at the Convent — related in the first and penultimate chapters.

The themes of Paradise — the contagion of oppression, violence against women, the pursuit of utopia, the conflict on interpretation of religion — are obvious but deftly told. Morrison has a wonderful way of getting in a character’s head and asking you to empathize with them, then switching viewpoints to another character who just does not care or rejects the principles the first character held. As I mentioned in my review of Ancillary Justice, the difference between approaching current topics of human rights and politics by a lesser skilled writer who takes you out of the narrative and a master who just makes you angry on behalf of the characters is immense. Toni Morrison is the master here. I was enveloped by the plot and characters, not distantly pondering topics of feminism and civil rights. Or I was, but they were entwined. No academic detachment.

The sentence level writing is stellar. Toni Morrison is often described as lyrical and I guess she is, but that word is kind of vague and imprecise. The language in Paradise alternates between personal and biblical. The dialogue feels like it could be spoken aloud. The characters have depth but are familiar — they have traits you see in those around you. Then there are moral proclamations that strike to the bone. Fire and brimstone seem right around the corner. There feels like there is much more at stake than a few lives, or even an entire town.Taken together, it all reminds me deeply of a western — there’s something intensely hopeless about it all, similar to Warlock, another tale of biblical-American destruction.

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