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‘They shoot the white girl first.’

Toni Morrison begins Paradise with a scene of terror the reader does not expect from the title of the novel. This may be because her intended title was War, but her publisher requested she choose an alternate.What follows is a complex tale of the history and ancestry of a town and the way it becomes inextricably linked with a mansion on its outer limits. Morrison uses intertextuality to give the work substance while supplying themes of racism, fear, guilt, religion, feminism, ageism, mysticism, and mysogynism to create a mesmerizing work of fiction which causes the reader to view how much reality exists in the midst of madness.

The novel begins with a lingering destructive message and interwoven timelines. There is a constant hinting at previous narratives with in a current narrative, creating several layers. The author discusses  relationships between the past and present by describing the town of Haven, Oklahoma,  where 15 former slave families came from the Mississppi to live. On the way they attempted to settle in other towns with white, Native American, and other black peoples, but were never allowed to stay. This has created bitterness and is the reason no other people are allowed in the town today.  As Morrison explains the transitions the town and people have made over the years  in changing its name from Haven to New Haven to Ruby (the name of a female ancestor and the first chapter of the novel), a palimpsest is established. In the same way, she depicts the Convent, once an embezzler’s mansion and stereotypically male decorated home as a space that has been  newly inhabited and reinvested with meaning to become a place of refuge for lost women.

Written in chapters named after significant women characters, the text slowly reveals the reason why the Convent is so threatening to the men in Ruby. As the author tells the histories of the characters the reader immediately picks up on the depth of the symbolism, complexity, and mystery of the text.  Things have begun to go wrong in town. ‘Brides disappeared on their honeymoons. Two brothers shot each other on New Year’s Day. Trips to Demby for VD shots common.’  But it problems are really occurring because the youth are changing. This is something the elders won’t stand for.

Since the founding of Haven(now Ruby), the Oven has been the gathering place, the town’s central identity. When words were engraved on it, the people of the town had a sort of creed to live by. With the words worn off, there is a debate not only about how to live, but whom to obey. The words the elders especially Deacon and Steward Morgan, the most powerful men in town claim were written many years ago: ‘Beware the Furrow of His Brow.’ The youth of the town want the Oven to read :’Be the Furrow of His Brow.’ If the Oven continues to say beware, the old ways of living will continue to suppress the younger generation. They would prefer that individuals ‘be’empowered.

With each new girl and women the picture of an oppressed women is painted. Women run both from Ruby and other locations in the country from death of children, rape, pregnancy, abuse, to the Convent. As opposed to the evil placed upon them by the men of Ruby who themselves have affairs with Gigi and Connie, the women are fleeing as slaves in a slave narrative. For  Mavis- a mother who left her newborn infants Merle and Pearl to suffocate in the parking lot at the grocery store, they are alive in the mansion. Connie has almost lost her vision and spends much time in the dark always wearing sunglasses. There was brightness about her. ‘Connie was magic.’ Indeed there is something special about the Convent. Yet, not in the tainted or cruel way the men of Ruby speak about. The little commonplace objects Morrison drops throughout the novel leave the reader plenty of questions regarding significance.

In order to keep the town and its ancestors from altering their ideal world, the Morgan’s arrange for their nephew K.D. to marry Arnette. The wedding is not just about the couple having relations out of wedlock  and being forced to wed without love. The same situation has been repeated since the town’s founding in order to maintain racial purity and keep other people out. They are forced to marry because the families have always done this-it is a family issue. But deep down everyone knows it’s wrong.

Before the ceremony begins, Reverend Pulliam gives a speech about love hoping the congregation will understand the symbolism. ‘If you think love is natural you are blind.’ He indicates that people’s view of God is the same as their view of love. They have been wrong about assuming that the law of their town is above that of God. While he continues with his speech. Reverend Misner looks at the cross and thinks about all the people who carry it and represent it. ‘A cross was no better than the bearer.’ While Pulliam continues to speak, Misner takes the large cross off the wall and holds it without speaking. In doing so he shows how using words reveals what is inside is. Misner wants people to see the symbolism in the cross, but also to come to their own conclusions.

In order to prevent the change which was inevitable, the Morgan’s and the other elders never talked about themselves. They had an oral tradition which told stories of their ancestors, but, planned or not,  in order to avert the recognition of imperfections within their own families they never discussed the present. Perhaps in doing so, they made it easier for themselves to require only those with the blood of the original fifteen families(8 rock blood) to mate and live in Ruby. Committing adultery wasn’t a crime for the power hungry men making the rules. Did they consider God at all? It seems they did not because they decided to murder the women at the Convent in order to initiate the change they desired.

Before the men of Ruby slaughter the women of the Convent, there has never been a death in the town. By not listening to the Reverend’s and assuming they had the right to take innocent lives, they instantly caused impurity to exist. A little girl, Save-Marie-is dead. The people of Ruby analyze their actions, but it is too late. There is guilt, blame, fear, lies, and finally change in the town. Immorality cannot last, neither can perfection or ignorance.  Now the Oven reads: ‘We are the Furrow of His Brow.’

The women of the Convent appear in the end to family members as though they are alive. Since the townspeople of Ruby never find any dead bodies, it is a possibility. Morrison concludes the novel in beautiful contrast to the beginning which features fear and violence with a closing that indicates serenity and calmness-Paradise. In my opinion the ladies are apparitions in the magical realist tradition with unfinished business to tend to. They were depressed, and wandering in life and are able to endure peacefully in a breezy ocean-like setting after death.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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