Sula

Book review by
Terreece Clarke, Common Sense Media
Sula Book Poster Image
Haunting, complex tale of friendship best for older teens.

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Kids say

age 16+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Sula gives a rare, intimate glimpse of early-to-mid-20th-century life in an African-American community in Ohio, a slice of life that isn't often shown in contemporary fiction. There are also some great vocabulary words and complex social themes. 

Positive Messages

Strong messages about friendship and community and thought-provoking ideas about gender and social nonconformity.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sula demonstrates destructive behavior (having affairs including with a friend's husband, accidentally drowning a boy, watching her mother burn to death without helping) that while harming others often go largely unpunished except for social exile. Her behavior does trigger positive behavior in other characters -- for example, Teapot's mother, who had previously neglected him, takes better care of him after it's assumed (incorrectly) that Sula injures him. Nel, Sula's best friend, displays positive characteristics of faithfulness and caring despite Sula's actions.

Violence

The violence is not gratuitous, but it's not watered down, either, which may be jarring for readers. While at war, one man sees another soldier's face blown off by bullets. He describes the man's body as it continues to run on without the head. A child is accidently killed when he is tossed into a river and is unable to swim. Another child is responsible for the accident but never tells what happens. The dead child's body is eventually found, but instead of properly caring for it, a white man who doesn't want to take it back to where the child is from (because of the distance) attaches it to his boat and drags it around the river. We are told, not shown, that the body was so badly disfigured after three days of being in the sun, prolonged exposure to the water, and not being properly cared for that his mother's jaw drops upon seeing it. She remains in shock for an entire day. A woman accidentally sets herself on fire and is burned alive; a child watches and doesn't help. The woman is described as having burned skin and a look of pain that is frozen on her face. Another woman jumps out of the window to save her and is described as being bloodied and gravely injured. Children are beaten. There is talk of black men being killed by white men and having their testes cut off (not shown). A man is set on fire by his mother, on purpose, and dies. A group of men, women, and children drown when a tunnel collapses on them. There's reference to the historical raping of black women by white men.

Sex

Adult relationships and situations are described and include stories about a woman who regularly has sex with men around the house, but the sex acts aren't described in detail. Another woman has many lovers; newlyweds are described as being excited from lovemaking; and there are several references to breasts, penises, and vaginas. There are also brief discussions about masturbation and of sexual awakening in teens. One couple is caught naked in the act of adultery, while another is shown having sex, with the positions described in detail. There's discussion of women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. At one point a woman gives a sexually explicit speech to express when she thinks the town will come to forgive her: "After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black men f--k all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones; when the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after all the whores make love to their grannies ... ."

Language

"F--k," "a--hole," and "whore." Racial slurs, including the "N" word.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke and drink. Alcoholics are described as people who are "determined to drink themselves to death."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sula, the second novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, is a complex story set in an African-American community in Ohio between 1919 and 1965. It follows two best girlfriends from childhood through old age and one woman's betrayal of the other. An American classic with themes and situations relevant to our time, the novel is best suited for older teens due to its adult content and situations. It may be OK for some younger teens with parental guidance, especially in discussing the ambiguity of the characters and their actions. The story includes death, loss, and sexual situations among adults, as well as descriptions of budding sexual awareness among teens. Violence includes a soldier's face blown off in war, a child's accidental drowning in a river, a woman's accidental burning to death, and a woman intentionally burning her son to death; children are beaten, there's talk of black men being killed by white men and having their testes cut off, and the historical raping of black women by white men is mentioned. Strong language used by the mostly adult characters includes "f--k," "a--hole," "whore," and the "N" word. Parents should be prepared to discuss the issues the book raises regarding race, gender, feminism, marriage, friendship, death, murder, parenthood, poverty, and PTSD.

User Reviews

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Teen, 16 years old Written byAropa August 19, 2016

Inspiring piece of art.

The novel explores the hardships and segregation of the black community. The community is strengthened by their collective identity and this helps them to grow... Continue reading

What's the story?

Sula Peace and Nel Wright are inseparable girls. Where one ends, the other begins. They complement each other and together navigate life in the Bottom, their African-American community on a hill above a white Ohio town. Outsiders see the residents of the Bottom as complacent about their poverty and societal ills, yet those who live there see themselves as a community with a spirit, people who have learned from experience that the way to survive is to take life as it comes. As Sula and Nel grow older, they take wildly different paths. Their paths eventually cross again when one betrays the other, and the town is both drawn together and pulled apart. Is Sula Peace really the embodiment of evil, or is she the glue that keeps the community together?

Is it any good?

Heady, complex, haunting, and achingly beautiful, this classic American novel is a layered story that only gets more thought-provoking as readers delve deeper into its various themes and symbolism. Author Toni Morrison presents her characters as fully human and explores ideas and situations that are both true to life and jarring. Through the story of two girls, she explores serious themes, including poverty, racism, patriarchy, sexual and economic freedom of women, what happens when women eschew gender and societal norms, relationships between and among women, and PTSD triggered by war.

SULA is at once bound by its time (early to mid-20th century) and timeless, because the issues in the novel still have cultural and political relevance. It's a perfect book to stimulate deep discussions of broader societal issues.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the feminist themes in Sula. Are they the same as or different from feminist and girl-power issues of today?

  • What do you think of the level of violence in Sula? Is it important to the storytelling,and for historical accuracy, or does it seem like too much? 

  • How is Sula and Nel's friendship when they were children different from their adult friendship? What's positive about their behavior as friends, and how does it mirror the frenemies/mean-girl attitudes we see portrayed in today's media? 

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