Toni Morrison's characters take on a life of their own. Who can forget Sula and Beloved from the heart-wrenching novels of the same names, Milkman from "The Song of Solomon" and Pecola from "The Bluest Eye"?
Add to those characters one Frank Money -- "of which we had none," he quips wryly -- a traumatized Korean War veteran headed back south despite his own suffering to save his beloved sister Ycidra, called Cee.
The story of the warrior's struggle to return home is classic, but Nobel laureate Morrison imbues her tale with twists that make the journey more challenging and Frank Money's success less certain. As we meet him, Money is shackled and shoeless in a mental hospital cell, feigning sleep to avoid a middle-of-the-night injection to keep him unconscious until morning. He can't even remember what he did to wind up in the hospital, but he knows that he must escape to get to Cee after a mysterious letter tells him, "Come fast. She be dead if you tarry."
Money has deep-rooted experience with escape. When he was 4, "men with or without badges but always with guns" forced 15 black families from their homes; the elderly man who refused to leave was brutally murdered. This story is told briefly and in retrospect, almost matter-of-factly, as Money considers what he needs -- shoes, for one -- to get to a nearby church. There he hopes to get help and a start on his journey back to the neighborhood outside Atlanta where Cee is dying and to take her home to Lotus, Ga.
When the story shifts to Cee's voice, the narrative soars. Cee has not escaped the oppression that her brother has felt, but this story is told in more homey terms.
A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have. Mamas are supposed to spank and rule you so you grow up knowing right from wrong. Grandmothers, even when they've been hard on their own children, are forgiving and generous to the grandchildren. Ain't that so?
For Cee, it was not so. Born in a church basement as her family fled to the cramped home of grandfather Salem in Lotus, Cee becomes the irrational target of the strict Miss Lenore, Salem's third wife.
Decent women, she said, delivered babies at home, in a bed attended to by good Christian women who knew what to do. Although only street women, prostitutes, went to hospitals when they got pregnant, at least they had a roof overhead when their baby came. Being born in the street -- or the gutter, as she usually put it -- was prelude to a sinful, worthless life.
As Cee grows, she is not only watched and corrected but nagged by every adult in town, every second of her life.
Come here girl, didn't nobody teach you how to sew? Yes ma'am. Then why is your hem hanging like that? Yes, ma'am, I mean no, ma'am. Is that lipstick on your mouth? No, ma'am. What then? Cherries, ma'am, I mean blackberries. I ate some. Cherries, my foot. Wipe your mouth. Come down from that tree, you hear me? Tie your shoes put down that rag doll and pick up a broom uncross your legs go weed that garden stand up straight don't you talk back to me.
Of course, innocent Cee falls prey to the first man who comes to Lotus from out of town. This "rat" takes her to Atlanta, where, ashamed of her country ways, he abandons her.
Cee takes a job with a white doctor whose creepy first question is whether she has been with a man or had children; the books on eugenics on his shelves give us a pang of dread.
After Korea, Frank Money moves up north and settles with a sweet, hard-working woman named Lily. But his memories, which include the battle deaths of his two best friends from Lotus and possibly something even worse, intrude on his life. When the letter arrives telling him about Cee, he must go and get her and return to Lotus, no matter how much he dreads it.
The chapters in "Home" are written from the point of view of different characters, including Frank's woman Lily and Salem's mean wife, Miss Lenore. Each character retells his or part of the story, providing rich detail and deeper understanding of the truth of Morrison's tale.
As usual, Morrison's writing is both lyrical and earthy and, although spare, dense with hints and meaning. This is a book that can be read in one long sitting, and probably will be, but a second reading is needed to fully understand every word and phrase. Although parts of the story are upsetting to read, they help the reader understand war and the brutal racism of the 1950s.
Only a mysterious dapper man in an old-fashioned zoot suit doesn't get to tell his side, although by the final lines in this satisfying, emotional story, we understand who he is and what part he played in this textured, painful and ultimately uplifting story.
Anne Neville is a News feature writer.
By Toni Morrison
147 pages, $24