Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Tar Baby
Narrator: Desiree Coleman
Other Books Read by the Same Author:
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2007 [originally published in 1981]
Tar Baby was the first novel I ever read. It was part of the reading for a course I took as a college freshman on African American folklore in literature. I was required to take a writing course as a William & Mary freshman, but as they were all filled up I was allowed to chose from a new series of writing-intensive seminars, and this was the one I picked. It was a good choice as I got to discuss some excellent literature with the professor and eleven other students and I have to say it was a very meaningful point in my education and life.
The irony is that while I would go on to become a devoted reader of Toni Morrison, I didn’t like Tar Baby when I first read it. This time I liked it a lot better. The story focuses on a group of characters on a Caribbean island. Son, a Black sailor who jumps ship and swims to the island, ends up hiding in the estate of Valerian Street. Valerian, a retired candy manufacturer, has made his island home his permanent residence where he enjoys cultivating plants in his greenhouse despite the pleas of his wife Margaret to return home to Philadelphia. Margaret is a former beauty queen who we learn is mentally unstable and suffers from the restrictions on her life as a woman.
Working at the estate are a married Black couple, Syndey, the butler, and Ondine, the cook. Despite their servile position they each have a familiar relationship with their employers and are willing the share their opinions. Sydney and Ondine’s niece, Jadine, who they act as surrogate parents for after she was orphaned. Jadine is highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan after education at the Sorbonne, sponsored by Valerian, and working as a fashion model.
The discovery of Son hiding in Margaret’s closet begins a series of events that reveal the deep-seeded tensions among the residents of the estate. Valerian makes a great show of treating Son as a guest while Margaret, Sydney, and Ondine disapprove. Eventually, Son and Jadine, both attractive, young people in their 20s flee and begin a romantic relationship. They first go to New York City where Jadine thrives but Son feels stifled. Then they go to Son’s home town of Eloe, Florida where Son feels more at home being close to nature with his people, but Jadine is overwhelmed by the strict, traditional expectations for women.
The book covers many themes related to women and race. All the women in this story find themselves restricted in different ways. The relations of the Streets to Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine appear cordial at first but are revealed to built on white supremacy. Internalized racism is also revealed as first Sydney and Ondine, and later Jadine, judge Son for his natural and “wild” ways. And there is the intersection of reality with African American folklore, particularly in the story of the wild horsemen of the island, descended from the first enslaved people brought there. This is also the first book of Morrison’s set in a contemporary rather than historical period which makes it stand out among her works.