Sula, Morrison's second novel, focuses on a young black girl named Sula, who matures into a strong and determined woman in the face of adversity and the distrust, even hatred, of her by the black community in which she lives. Morrison delves into the strong female relationships between the novel's women and how these bonds both nurture and threaten individual female identity. Also, she questions to what extent mothers will go to protect their children from a harsh world, and whether or not these maternal instincts ultimately are productive or harmful.
The novel's structure is circular. When it begins, the narrator is explaining what has happened to the Bottom, the black neighborhood in the Ohio hills above the valley town of Medallion. Medallion's white citizens are moving up into the Bottom and building homes, television towers, and plush golf courses. The Bottom's black residents are moving down into the valley. When the novel ends, the year is 1965, and the narrator tells us more about this neighborhood metamorphosis. In between these chapters, we learn of the events that shape Sula's and the black community's identities between 1919 and 1965.
Sula also explores the life of Nel, Sula's best friend. The girls are best friends even though they have completely opposite personalities. Sula is impulsive, daring, and independent; Nel, in contrast, obediently does what is expected of her.
When Nel marries, Sula leaves the Bottom and goes to Tennessee, where she attends college for an unspecified amount of time. Ten years later, she mysteriously and unexpectedly returns to the Bottom, but it is immediately clear that she still has the fiery personality she had before she left; she still does the unexpected. And she does more; she does the unthinkable: She places her grandmother, Eva, the family's strong and domineering matriarch, in a nursing home, and she has a brief sexual affair with Nel's husband, Jude. However, a few years later, Sula is near death, and Nel, who hasn't spoken to Sula since she learned of her husband and Sula's indiscretion, visits her old friend and forgives her. Shortly afterward, Sula dies.
The novel is not as concerned with mere story line as much as with the texture of these women's lives and the community they live in. Irony, a literary technique, helps establish this texture. In the prologue, for example, we learn that the hills on which the black neighborhood is situated were once considered worthless land. However, when the whites realized the potential of this land, it suddenly became valuable: They began buying the land, and the blacks were forced to move down into the valley, previously a Whites Only area where they had worked — but were forbidden to live.
Another element of the novel's richness is Morrison's language. Morrison doesn't merely tell us that blacks are being ousted from the Bottom and whites are moving in; she shows us examples of what's being replaced. Workers "tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots"; beech trees are gone, as are the pear trees "where children sat and yelled down through the blooms to passersby." Morrison describes the black women who once leaned their heads back while Irene the beautician lathered their hair; she pictures Reba of Reba's Grill cooking in a hat "because she couldn't remember the ingredients without it."
Morrison enables us to see Reba and Irene; we hear the nightshade and blackberry bushes being torn from the ground and the children's yelling from the pear trees. We can taste Reba's cooking, and we can feel the "frayed" edges of men's lapels and the softness of women's felt hats. This is texture. Morrison's prose cannot be skimmed; it must be savored. It is best read aloud, slowly.