Ben Smithgall

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Interactive News Developer at the New York Times. Previously with Spotify, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.






By Toni Morrison

Finished reading on November 5, 2019

Sula has one of the best opening sentences of any book I have read in a long time:

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.

Morrison truly has a unique and wonderful gift for language: that single sentence packs in the promise of an otherwise lost history, paved over by the sameness of this blandly named golf course. This sort of play with the language is present throughout the novel and rebounds throughout the happiness and tragedy of the friendship between Sula and Nel.

The complex interplay of the relationship between Sula and Nel animates the novel. They grow together and apart and closer and further from the Bottom, the neighborhood that is eventually torn out to make room. Ironically, the Bottom is on top of a hill; the white folks live in the valley below for awhile. This is a clever nod: the force of institutional racism is strong enough to flip even physical laws. It describes a state of affairs, not just a place. When tastes change and white folks want the hill-top views, the Bottom as a neighborhood vanishes, but the relative rankings do not change.

Once very curious symbol I couldn’t quite place was the “plague of robins” that accompany Sula when she returns from her travels. Perhaps Sula is an overwhelming force of nature. I haven’t encountered the robin as a literary symbol before, so I didn’t quite know what to make of it. When she does return, though, there is an interesting bit where her “wickedness” causes collateral improvements between other unhealthy relationships in the Bottom – other mothers become closer to their children. In a small community, all of us are bound up with each other in sometimes unexpected ways.