Eighteen years ago, Sethe and her children escaped the Kentucky plantation "Sweet Home" to find refuge in Cincinnati at the home of her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. Now, the Civil War is over, Baby Sugs has died, Sethe's two sons have run away, and the house is occupied by Sethe, her daughter Denver, and the ghost of her dead 2-year-old daughter known only as "Beloved".
The townsfolk shun the house - known only by the partial address of "124". Presumably, they avoid 124 because of their fear of the ghost within; but, as the story unfolds, we learn of the tragic secret that drove a wedge between Sethe and the local community.
The novel is filled with symbolism, such as the four horsemen arriving to re-capture escaped slaves; and the incomplete street address - a nod to the incomplete lives of former slaves; and the tree-shaped scars on Sethe's back, which mirror the emotional scars on her soul.
But Morrison deals explicitly with many issues - particularly the dehumanizing aspects of slavery. Families were separated permanently; people were stripped of their names (most of the male slaves at Sweet Home were named "Paul"); beatings were common; negroes were compared to animals; and sexual assault went unpunished. For some, death was preferable to a life of slavery.
This was my second reading of Beloved and I am glad I returned to it, even after 20 years. The story is sometimes difficult to follow as it includes numerous shifts in time and perspective. Much of the book reads more like poetry than prose, forcing the reader to approach each chapter deliberately and more slowly than most novels.
But the extra effort pays off in this beautiful and tragic story.