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Paradise    by Toni Morrison order for
by Toni Morrison
Order:  USA  Can
Plume, 1999 (1998)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio
* * *   Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai

Imagine a community where everyone is equal and no discord is evident; a place without hatred, class systems and other societal ills, a place to bring up a family and ensure continuity of a 'pure' bloodline. A paradise, no less! Toni Morrison's book of the same name reveals that paradise is hard to achieve; people grow to seek more than their own town can furnish, and outside influences affect everyone in the community - making it impossible to maintain an oasis of righteousness with the world at its doorstep.

The isolated town of Ruby, Oklahoma was founded by descendants of freed slaves. These were families who once before, rather unsuccessfully, attempted to settle another paradise, Haven, only to see that succumb to many external pressures. Haven allowed 'outside' marriages and embraced modernity in all its forms, including television, film, pop music and drink - and gradually became integrated into the racial mosaic that is America.

Twin brothers, Deacon (Deek) and Steward Morgan, are two 'founding members' of Ruby; pillars of the community. They, along with Reverend Pulliman, one of the town's three ministers, influence many others to follow them and commit a terrible act of mass violence which the reader witnesses as the book unfolds. We are then treated to an elegant and candid view of why this should have happened in the quiet, idealistic town of Ruby.

Morrison introduces us not only to Ruby's inhabitants but also to the victims of violence, the women who have found refuge in the old Convent several miles outside town. Their stories of quiet despair are heart wrenching and touching as they begin to understand and cope with their own demons, and to gather the strength to continue and learn from their failures. Unfortunately, Ruby's male inhabitants cannot seem to find the same inner peace. Their own feelings of inadequacy and failure come to a raging climax as they march forth to rid Ruby of a terrible scourge.

Paradise is profoundly moving but also extremely disturbing. We are forced to confront the basis of all forms of gender bias and racism, seen here as the need to promote racial purity - an almost Hitler-like agenda perpetrated by this singularly racially pure black community. Did the men of Ruby believe that '... because they lived away from white law they were beyond it?'

They were so afraid of contaminating their bloodline that they gradually sank to a level of humanity below the worst that they themselves could envision. The men all remembered (or had been told of) black soldiers returning from wartime duty in World War II and having testicles removed or medals torn off by groups of rednecks and Sons of the Confederacy, and they were afraid to remain in mixed communities. This fear of change and integration, progress and inclusion, castrated them emotionally and led to their downfall.

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