Song of Solomon is a masterpiece of American literature by Toni Morrison. Morrison has won all sorts of awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. If you haven’t read her work before, this is a great one to start with. It is one of those rare books that’s about people, politics, and American history all at the same time. The personal, political, and historical all resonate to create a powerful tapestry of human experience. It’s complex, beautiful, and marvelous. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Don’t read anything more about it; just read it.
North and South begins in London, where Margaret Hale is staying with her wealthy cousin. After her cousin is married, Margaret returns home to find that her father, the parson in a small village, is having a crisis of conscience. He decides to quit his post in the church and takes a job as a private tutor in the northern manufacturing town of Milton. The air there is polluted, and the people suffer from poverty, starvation, and disease. Margaret comes to know people of different classes and gets involved in their affairs, including a conflict between a mill owner and his workers.
It’s best not to say much more about the plot, but Elizabeth Gaskell is, as always, entertaining and easy to read even as she depicts the most painful things. This book is admittedly not as masterful as Wives and Daughters. There is a very unlikely and frankly unnecessary coincidence to move the plot, and there are also some characters that she doesn’t treat with the empathy and sophistication that she does virtually all the characters in her later work. But I like how daring this was in its approach to social issues. It is partly a romance, which many seem to see it as, but it also tackles larger economic and social questions. Gaskell is clear-headed and prescient in her thoughts about technology and the constant changes it will continue to bring to society. In the end, though, this book really hinges on Margaret learning to grow up, take responsibility, and make her own choices. It’s almost a coming of age story at its core. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would rank it as one of the great works of Victorian literature.
One final note about the 2004 BBC production. I have loved many of these productions and couldn’t wait to see this one after reading the book. I had been really wondering how they could ever depict all these internal thoughts and revelations in a drama. After seeing the beginning, I realized they weren’t even trying. It may be great on its own merit, but I just couldn’t watch the thing, it seemed so far from the book in spirit.