Book Review: Miss Chloe: A Literary Friendship with Toni Morrison
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
There is so much commercial tripe out there on our bookshelves, but this book is very worthy: Miss Chloe: A Memoir Of A Literary Friendship With Toni Morrison by A. J. Verdelle. This is a book our community desperately needs. We don’t give the honor and respect that some of our celebrated creators deserve, especially Black women. Verdelle, a noted novelist of the award-winning A Good Negress, chronicles her close relationship with the mythic Morrison as a friend and mentor from their days at Princeton University to her untimely death.
In the beginning of the book, Verdelle describes Toni Morrison aka Chloe A. Wofford, the wise, reflective woman from the small town of Lorain, Ohio. She had been a faithful reader of Morrison’s complex, enlightening novels, notably The Bluest Eye and Beloved, so the inevitable meeting occurred at a church function in Boston. Her rendition of the meeting with the legendary author is priceless and the rest is history.
As Verdelle writes, women depend on each other here and everywhere. In her artful words, she tries to capture the essence of their bond: “Our relationship was ultimately to me, an alchemy of season and light, often agitated by our separate stages in life and by unarguable presence of genius, the unyielding pressures of time. Our exchanges were soothed by keen imagination and sometimes serrated by the heft of her expectations. Nonetheless, we graced each other with what we had to give. We applauded our mutual offerings.”
In the book, Verdelle says she was raised partly by her grandparents and was a compulsive reader. She, like her kin, celebrated family rituals such as birthdays and other gatherings as cherished passages of time and tradition. Another excellent section of the book occurs when the author presents us with her family, in all its richness and variety, loving and living in the protective bosom of their community. Here, Verdelle thrives and becomes whole, and emerges to take her place in the outside world.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the pages is the situations and exchanges with her friend, Miss Chloe. Despite the age difference (Morrison was born in 1931, Verdelle 1960), the women enter their lives with affection, grace, wit, and often emotional flashpoints. No friendship is without its trying times, often because of personality or a hazardous season in life. Yet this is the sheer value of this precious memoir, a blending of two temperaments, one a fledgling and the other an experienced wise sage well on its way.
Why Toni Morrison? I reply: why not? In our literary canon, we must embrace the personal and aesthetic combinations of our creative giants. We learn from their wisdom; we learn from their examples. Much like the dominant community celebrates several friendships of their wordsmiths, past and present, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Henry Miller and Laurence Durrell, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, and the infamous pairing of Norman Mailer and the outlaw Jack Abbott. We, as writers and artists, do a deep dive into how they create their art and how they live their lives.
As with her novel, Verdelle’s writing is impeccable and seamless. Reading through these chapters almost seems like a high-powered writing clinic or a seat at the prestigious Iowa Workshop. She sprinkles the facts of how she was born as a quality writer between her noted anecdotes of Morrison’s solid fundamentals as a word wizard. She tells the readers that books and longs stories need shape and scaffolding. In the end, she concludes: “It takes knowledge, experience, study, apprenticeship. It takes architecture.”
She lists some of the writers who influenced her: Alice Walker, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, June Jordan, Willa Cather, Gayl jones, and James Baldwin. Readers can see their gifts in her work both here and her prized novel. She mentions that she followed Miss Chloe’s example of raising early and starting work. It has paid off.
In another key segment, Verdelle has her say about the poison of racism: Racism keeps you from expecting, anticipating, from pursuing, from interrogating, from investing in your own waiting talents; racism keeps you from believing in your own real personhood. Victims of racism, in our country, are held responsible for the racism inflicted against them.”
As an added bonus, Verdelle gives us a sneak peek into the publishing world, with its celebrities such as John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, and William Styron. `I loved when she quipped to Updike that “she felt like a raisin in a bowl of rice pudding at that event,” and he laughed “a little uncomfortably.”
Again, the book gives us glimpses of the private Miss Chloe, away from the spotlight or center stage. She loves food, loves Paris, loves a good laugh. She loves stylish clothing. She loves her dreadlocked hair. She possesses a dark green Jaguar. “We became faster friends than I think either of us expected,” she writes. “We enjoyed each other; we laughed; we played with and talked about language with abandon. When we had time and were proximal, we met up and often, made impromptu plans, though she had a penchant for making a specific suggestion and then making me choose the final lap. Usually we got together, got food, and went to where she lived. I planned questions in case she wasn’t talking. And she listened to what she said when she spoke.”
While Verdelle’s memoir yields a full measure of the author’s superior talents, she pays a much-deserved tribute to Miss Chloe’s heralded stories and the global praises they garnered. Here, she offers compelling testimony on the power of friendship, wisdom, loyalty, and knowledge. Miss Chloe: A Memoir Of A Literary Friendship With Toni Morrison is the perfect book for us to live our best life, to cultivate friendships that matter, to value a sense of purpose and history that will carry us through tough times.