As thousands of hungry West Point students streamed into the mess hall for their 20-minute lunch break recently,they paused from the rush to the tables to give a rousing group cheer to a guest who has received hundreds of accolades,but perhaps none this thunderous.
I cant believe thisits like a movie, said Toni Morrison,who sat at one of the 420 wooden tables in the flag-bedecked Washington Hall. Seated with members of the African-American Arts Forum at West Point,Morrison read from her most recent novel,Home,to the freshman cadets,who studied the book in English class this semester.
The novel is the story of Frank Money,a Black Georgia native and Korean War veteran struggling to reintegrate into civilian life in a segregated America,while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I read Home last winter and immediately saw that the text touched on so many relevant topics, said Lt Col Scott Chancellor,who directs West Points freshman English programme and called Morrison,a Nobel Prize winner,the greatest living American writer.
In a telephone interview,she explained that she didnt rely on medical textbooks or interviews in researching Home,but rather drew on David Halberstams book The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War for its descriptions of the scenery and the weather,especially the brutal cold. In addition,she found inspiration in an image of a shellshocked veteran from my hometown,who walked the street in military garb shouting.
Morrison has been outspoken about her opposition to recent US military interventions. However,she accepted the invitation to West Point immediately. During the interview,Morrison said she was concerned about the number of suicides by veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. I dare you to tell me a sane reason we went to Iraq, she said.
But exploring the costs of war is not foreign to the schools curriculum,said Col Scott Krawczyk,the head of the academys English and philosophy programmes,who taught Home to a section of first-year cadets.
At West Point we ensure that cadets are made to struggle with moral ambiguity, said Krawczyk,referring to their future as officers. Morrison gives us just enough psychological complication to open up an understanding of how desperately malignant the realm of war can be.
We related to the book,especially since many cadets who graduated last year have been serving,and its easy to imagine PTSD happening to someone not that much older than us, said Abigail Graves,a freshman,whose father,an Army colonel,was stationed in Iraq for over a year.
Another student,LaMar Hawkins,a Black cadet,recalled his introduction to Morrisons work. I went to see a play version of The Bluest Eye with my father at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, he said,referring to one of her earlier novels. It was the first time I ever saw him cry.