Books That Inspire 2011

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise, imagines an Oklahoma landscape that tells a global story, and raises ageless questions. How do we form bonds of friendship and family? What makes us fight to protect the place we consider to be the "home" of our heart's desire—our own intimate "paradise?"

I personally love Morrison's writing. I relish the push and pull integral to her prose. I accept that she builds her words to be read, parsed, and re-read multiple times.

Paradise begins with the murder of a woman, and we spend the rest of the novel following Morrison's circuitous path to uncovering the reasons why. Set in 1976, in the fictional all-black town of Ruby, OK, the novel introduces us to the men and women of this small settlement on the edge of obscurity. Right outside its boundaries, in Convent, is a smaller community of independent women, bound by their mutual pain and expressions of spiritual faith. The novel opens with violence and crime, through which the shared histories of these two different types of "home" become revealed.

Ruby, OK may be a fictional site, but as Black newspapers recorded, and history tells us, Oklahoma was once a thriving magnet for black towns—more than 50—larger than any other geographic site in the emergent United States. As the novel tells the story of Ruby from its beginnings, the town's evolution follows along the currents of our most significant national events: revolution, constitution, relocation, slavery, lynching, and civil unrest. By the end, Ruby's future is uncertain and Convent's past is exposed. But we understand, in a profound and layered way, the ache and hopeful yearning for the "beloved community" – that idealized place of acceptance where, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "…brotherhood is a reality."

What I learned:

Home can be a castle or a hut, but if we’re lucky, each of us can experience the quiet joy of knowing a place to call our own. Paradise moves me because Morrison captures so poignantly that longing for a home where we feel safe, free and whole. The novel's tragic events underscore the dangers of desire gone awry. However, reading Paradise while living here teaches me about Oklahoma's emotional core—the longing for safe places that brought diverse people together in contention and cooperation. I get why people sometimes move, and why others never leave. It's all about home.

Meta G. Carstarphen
Graduate Director Gaylord Family Professor & Associate Professor
Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication