The novel is set in the 1950s, and one of the siblings, Frank, has returned to the U.S. from the Korean War. He brings with him post-traumatic stress and memories that make it difficult for him to live with himself. He’s also black, and needs to transition from a recently desegregated army back to a society where segregation is still the norm, through official enforcement in some places and unofficial enforcement in others.
Meanwhile, his younger sister, Cee (nickname for Ycidra), flees her hateful grandmother by running off to Atlanta with a man who dumps her. Her search for better paying work brings her to the home of an unscrupulous doctor who hires her as his assistant and conducts unethical medical experiments on her and others.
It’s relatively rare to see novels featuring Korean War vets (and black vets, more generally). During the war, Frank has seen and done things that he can’t come back from. (“Back was the free-floating rage, the self-loathing disguised as somebody else’s fault.”) He has discovered things about himself that he would never have guessed at and that he doesn’t know how to confront.
The novel explores the question of what a home truly is. The characters lead precarious lives, and they could be driven out of their homes all too easily. So how does someone create a home when violence, destruction, illness, and complete destitution are nipping at the borders and can spill in at any moment?
Home is not simply a place, it’s a set of relationships and connections, and deep impressions on the mind and heart. The characters have perpetrated or witnessed profound violations in the world. Home is a place where you’re not degraded and where you ought to be free of those violations. At home, you can confront the demons and have people stand beside you.
Cee gains new strength with the help of women who stand in for the lack of a mother figure in her life. Chief among them is Ethel Fordham, who tells her, “Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.”
So home is where you can heal, among people who find worth in you, and it’s where you can do worthy things, even in the face of harsh odds. Of Ethel’s garden:
Her garden was not Eden; it was so much more than that. For her the whole predatory world threatened her garden, competing with its nourishment, its beauty, its benefits, and its demands. And she loved it.Morrison doesn’t sentimentalize home or make the folks of this backwoods town charming and endearingly simple. Other authors might have gone down that path and trivialized the story and the struggle of these scarred characters.