Nan DeVincent-Hayes, Ph.D             [ Back ]    [ Home  [ Next

Morrison’s “Paradise”

Toni Morrison is consistently a good writer. But in spite of her superb story telling skills, there are times she produces a dull plot, or a slowly unfolding one that takes too long to jolt readers into staying with the storyline.

Paradise is like that. It’s a story about an all Black town, Ruby, in rural Oklahoma, where the founders are used to doing things “their way.” Rules are laid out and the townspeople are obliged to follow. Bursts of rebellion, ill-behavior, even creativity are not relished.  The founders are descendants of freed slaves who govern their patriarchal community much the same way their ancestors were undermined by the Whites, as the Ruby residents are expected to be moral, to conform, to become uniform in a rigid but not wealthy town. By doing this, though the residents live in some degree of fear, Ruby-ites are protected from others and from the activities of the world going on around them. Ruby is the only town around for seventeen miles.

At the end of those seventeen miles is another community comprised of exiles, outcasts, nonconformists, and all women. In their “flight from death and despair,” they are subjected to the punishment of the “nine male citizens of Ruby “ who will “lay [upon them] their pain, their terror, and their murderous rage.”  The terror is realized in a “convent” those seventeen miles away.

Morrison’s first line in her book is “They shoot the white girl first.” She explains, “There are nine [men] over twice the number of women they are obliged to stampede or kill, and they have the paraphemalia [sic] for either requirement: rope, a palm of leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean handsome guns.” Movement by moment, Morrison narrates a tale around these eight women while focusing her chapters on: Ruby, Mavis, Grace, Seneca, Divine, Patricia, Consolata, Lone, Save-Marie. It is an interesting and well told story by the master Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author.

Morrison’s descriptions are unparalleled as in them we can see the characters, and get to know them so well that we feel as though we’re right in the kitchen with them. The tenor of the piece is a mixture of spirit and ambience. The suspense lies heavy throughout the story, and we become in a hurry to find out why we’re waiting and what we’re waiting for.  Morrison’s dialogue is uncannily real making her characters all the more familiar, life-like. Most of their conversations are short, pointed: “The woman sighed at the stove but didn’t answer.”


“‘I’m thinking.’; Mavis looked around the kitchen that seemed to her as large as her junior high school cafeteria.”

And while Morrison makes many of her characters likeable and easy to identify with, she’s not remiss in including the lowly and contemptible, or those who are a mixture of both like all of us. K.D. is one of those–a character who we don’t trust and yet don’t quite deplore: “But it was K.D. who irritated Misner most. Too quick to please. An oily apology. A devious smile.”

What an expert Morrison is in candid characterization, lyrical language, and suspense building.

At the same token, if you like a read that rivets you to your seat, that grounds you not in literary but rather popular writing, than this isn’t the kind of book you want, because in spite of Morrison’s sometimes pity and quick dialogue, her narration meanders and takes the slow route to the end. She doesn’t tell us right upfront who the major players are or what the plot is; instead she idly interweaves thoughts, forcing readers to work at finding answers. It takes awhile to figure out who’s who and what each is doing and how everyone is connected. The action seems repressed by the language.

But none of this takes away this author’s skills. Sometimes choosing one of Morrison’s books is based simply on personal taste rather than on raves or rants.  After all, she is a National Book Critics Circle awardee on top of her other honors, along with being a professor at Princeton. Paradise is a good, eloquent read, but not a fast, breath-taking one.

I give it five mighty pens!

Nan DeVincent-Hayes, Ph.D. 

Copyright 2002 Nan Hayes