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Toni Morrison’s right at ‘Home’

Author Toni Morrisadds truth about war racism standard narrative time her latest novel Home. “I was really trying take off

Author Toni Morrison adds truth about war and racism to the standard narrative of the time in her latest novel, Home. “I was really trying to take off that scab, or that veil, or whatever it is off the ’50s,” she said. | AP

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:17AM

GRAND VIEW-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — The Hudson River extends like the sun from the back of Toni Morrison’s house, illuminated and infinite, undimmed by an unseasonably drab spring afternoon.

“It’s interesting and soothing, and it changes constantly,” she says from the comfort of a white armchair in her living room. “And at night, with the stars and the moon . . .”

The Nobel laureate has lived in this converted boathouse since the late 1970s, when she spotted a “For Sale” sign while driving by and soon agreed to pay the then-impractical sum of $120,000. Her commitment was tested, then confirmed, after the house burned down in 1993, destroying everything from private letters to her sons’ report cards. But she had the house rebuilt and upgraded and so enjoys a setting both spacious and personal, with bookcases and paintings, plants and carvings, a patio and private dock.

Morrison, 81, is in a relaxed, informal mood on a recent Saturday, wearing a gray blouse and slacks and dark slippers, a purple bandanna tied over her gray dreadlocks, her laugh easy and husky with a pinch of “Can-you-believe-this?” You might mistake her for an ordinary neighbor ready for gardening until you see the pictures of her with James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Elie Wiesel among others, or learn that the low, wooden table by her chair was a prop from the film version of Beloved, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Morrison does not need to worry about recognition in her lifetime. Nobel judges have honored her, and so has Oprah Winfrey, whose book club picks have helped Morrison’s novels sell millions. A Toni Morrison Society organizes conferences about her work and sponsors a Toni Morrison Book Prize. She not only has written children’s stories, but has been the subject of one, Douglas Century’s Toni Morrison. Two presidential contenders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, sought her support in 2008 and Obama will soon present her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Her play “Desdemona,” a collaboration with director Peter Sellars and the Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traore, will be staged in London during the Summer Olympics.

The legend gets the glory; the real person works. Morrison has a new novel out, Home, a brief, poetic story of Frank Money, a traumatized Korean War veteran who returns to the states in the 1950s. Morrison has long used fiction as a private and alternative history, whether the Civil War (Beloved), the 1920s (Jazz) or colonial times (A Mercy). With Home, she wanted to add some truth — about war, about racism — to the standard ’50s narrative.

“I was really trying to take off that scab, or that veil, or whatever it is off the ’50s,” she says. “We’re told that it was good times, post-war, GI Bill, people had jobs and the television was full of happy stories and so on, and that’s it.”

Morrison, a native of Lorain, Ohio, never lived in Georgia. But for Home she drew upon stories from her father, a native of Cartersville, Ga., and from her memories of the South when she was an undergraduate at Howard University, based in Washington, D.C. She was on tour with fellow theater students in the early ’50s and was moved by how blacks took care of her and each other. She knew what to expect from the whites in the South, but the revelation was how “lovely and generous and capable” the blacks were.

As she gets older, Morrison says, the world becomes more interesting and more distressing. She is appalled at some of the remarks about Obama and the speculation that he was not an American citizen. But nature, and its mysteries, she responds to more than ever — the water, mountains, her garden. She watches “Planet Earth” on the Discovery Channel and marvels how it took “millions of years” for humans to evolve from “that thingy down there at the bottom of the sea.”

For her next novel, she wants to write about a black intellectual, a break from the uneducated characters who usually appear in her work.

“When I’m not thinking about a novel, or not actually writing it, [life is] not very good; the 21st century is not a very nice place. I need [writing] to just stay steady, emotionally,” she says.

“When I finished The Bluest Eye, . . . I was not pleased. I remember feeling sad. And then I thought, ‘Oh, you know, everybody’s talking about “sisterhood,’ ” I wanted to write about what women friends are really like. [The inspiration for Sula, her second novel]. All of a sudden the whole world was a real interesting place. Everything in it was something I could use or discard. It had shape. The thing is — that’s how I live here.”


“I guess that’s home.”


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