Sula traces people’s lives in “the Bottom,” a neighborhood in Medallion, Ohio, begun as “a nigger joke.” When a white farmer had promised a slave rich bottomland in exchange for his labor, the slave was given “hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds,” and where the white people in the next century longed to live, far from the farms and factories of the valley. Readers follow the lives of the community’s central figures for half a century. The prologue states that the people of the Bottom have three concerns: “what Shadrack was all about, what that little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was all about, and what they themselves were all about.”
What Shadrack was all about was control. Having survived death in World War I, he had to find a way to survive life. In the hospital, his fingers “began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk” so that he had to hide “his huge growing hands under the covers.” Released in such a mental state, he is taken home to the Bottom, where he declares January 3 to be National Suicide Day, “to order and focus experience. It had to do with making a place for fear as a way of controlling it. He knew the smell of death and was terrified of it, for he could not anticipate it.” If he knew when it was coming, however, then there was nothing to fear. “If one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free.” Each year, beginning in 1919, he walked the streets with a cowbell and a hangman’s rope, offering people the opportunity to meet death. No one takes up his offer until 1941.
Sula Peace is about self-possession and relationships. Both she and Nel Wright are “solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them.” When they found each other, it changed everything. Sula was the brave one, once slicing off the tip of her finger to prove to neighborhood Irish bullies that if she were that strong, she would not be afraid of them. Nel, however, “seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly be counted on to sustain any emotion for more than three minutes.” They complete and love each other.
Just as important in Sula’s life are her mother and grandmother. In her mother, Sula sees a...
(The entire section is 976 words.)