Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
In 1931, an insurance sales person, Robert Smith, dresses up in a blue superman outfit and stands on the roof of Mercy hospital from which he plans to fly from across the Great Lakes. Below him, a crowd gathers to watch. Among them is Ruth Foster, her two daughters Corinthians and Magdelena called Lena. Ruth is pregnant. She is carrying a basket full of red velvet roses which she and her daughters have cut out. She drops them and everyone runs to pick them up before theyíre ruined. Pilate Dead, Ruthís sister-in-law sings a song: "Sugarman donít fly off and leave me." Robert Smith jumps and dies and Ruth goes into labor. She gives birth to the first African-American child born in Mercy hospital.
A few years later, Macon Dead, Ruthís husband, who is a landlord of poor houses, hears of one of his tenants, Porter, going crazy and holding a rifle out of his bedroom window calling for a woman to come up to him and have sex with him. He goes to the house and waits for Porter to pass out and then sends his man, Freddie, upstairs to collect the rent. Macon goes home that night by way of Darling street where Pilate, his sister lives. He sneaks up to the window and enjoys hearing Pilate, her daughter, Reba, and her granddaughter Hagar, singing together. His son is named Macon too, but he has been renamed Milkman after Freddie caught Ruth nursing him when he was long past infancy.
In 1936, the Dead family take their usual Sunday drive in the Packard. Milkman has to urinate, so Macon stops on the side of the road and sends Lena to take him up the hill to urinate. When they come back, Lena is angry because Milkman accidentally urinated on her dress. Years later, when Milkman is twelve years old, he and his best friend Guitar go to see Pilate, whose house has been off limits to Milkman by order of Macon who considers her a bad woman. Pilate tells Milkman the story of her father getting shot back in Pennsylvania when she was only twelve. She had stayed with Macon for days after the death and then they had hidden in a cave. Macon found an old white man in the back of the cave and killed him out of terror. Then he found a stash of gold and wanted to take it. Pilate had prevented him. He had run out of the cave and when he returned Pilate was gone and so was the gold. He had hated her ever since. When Milkman went home that night, he told his father the story of Pilate and his father told Milkman his own version of the story.
Milkman goes to work for his father collecting rents. He is best friends with Guitar, who is a few years older than he is. Guitar tells Milkman the story of his fatherís death. His father had been working in a saw mill and was cut in half. When Guitar was waiting outside the mill for his mother, the wife of the mill owner brought the children divinity candy. Guitar has ever since been sickened by the idea of sweets and has hated white people.
When Milkman is twenty-two years old, he knocks his father down after his father hits his mother. Macon tells Milkman the story of his early marriage to Ruth. He says he and Ruth were at first happy, but Ruth and her father ridiculed him for being a slum lord. Ruthís father was the first African-American doctor in town. He hated Black people and held himself above them, but he had let Macon marry Ruth because he was becoming uncomfortable with Ruthís desperate devotion to him. On the night Dr. Foster, Ruthís father, died, Macon had found her in his room naked on the bed with the corpse sucking his fingers. From then on he had refused to have sex with her.
Milkman is thirty-one years old and bored. He has no direction in his life. He has been lovers with Hagar, his cousin, for years and now he is bored with her. It is Christmas and he decides to break up with Hagar. He writes her a note telling her he canít see her anymore and that he is grateful to her for all she has done for him. Hagar begins to stalk Milkman every month. Her madness wasnít just triggered by the "thank you" of his Christmas note, but by the vision of him in a bar with a light-skinned, copper-haired, gray- eyed, African American woman. Once a month she goes after him with the intent to kill him. So far he has been saved each time by her clumsiness. He finds out the story of his birth. Pilate had come to town before he was born and had seen that Ruth was sick with longing for sex. She gave Ruth a potion to make Macon want her. Macon had come to Ruth for sex for three days and then realized what she had done and had tried to make her abort the baby. Pilate had saved Milkmanís life by keeping Macon away from Ruth. Ruth also tells Milkman that she never got into bed with her fatherís corpse but had kissed his fingers, the only part of his body not mutilated by his disease.
Guitar has become political in the anti-racism movement. He tells Milkman that he is part of a small group called the Seven Days. They each have one day of the week. When an African American is killed by white people, they retaliate by killing a European American on the same day of the week. Guitar is the Sunday man. The men tell their victims "Your day has come" just before they kill them. One night Milkman tells his father of a sack that hangs from Pilateís kitchen ceiling. Macon thinks itís the gold from the cave back in Pennsylvania and urges Milkman to steal it. Milkman gets Guitar to go with him. They steal the sack and are caught by the police as they leave the house. The sack contains nothing but the bones of the old white man Pilate and Macon killed in the cave in Pennsylvania and stones which Pilate has collected from all the places sheís lived. Macon comes to get them out of jail and Pilate is called in as well. She puts on an Aunt Jemima act to make the police officers think she is a harmless old woman. Guitar is disgusted with her and Milkman feels guilty that she had to do that.
Milkmanís sister, Corinthians gets a job as a maid in an effort to give her life meaning. She had been prepared in her life to marry a rich doctor, but there were no African-American men available to her, so she and Reba have lived their lives in the house with no purpose. She meets Porter on the bus and eventually they become lovers. Milkman finds out that Porter is a member of the Seven Days and tells Macon to keep Corinthians away from him. Lena tells Milkman he has lived his whole life using the women in the house as maids and has never cared anything about any of them. She is angry that he has ruined Corinthianís chances for happiness.
Milkman goes to Danville, Pennsylvania, where his father and Pilate were born. He meets a group of old men who are his fatherís contemporaries. They tell him the stories of Lincolnís Heaven, the farm the first Macon Dead, Milkmanís grandfather, had created and for which he was killed. Milkman goes looking for the cave. He finds the house of the Butlers, the white family responsible for his grandfatherís death, and inside the house is the old woman, Circe, who helped his father and Pilate survive the first few days after their father was killed. Circe tells him the story of Pilateís birth. Pilate was born when her mother died. She had no navel. Her father had pointed in the Bible to the name Pilate, not knowing what it meant, and had written the name on a scrap of paper. Pilate, at twelve, had taken the scrap of paper and put in a small snuff box that had belonged to her mother. They had fashioned it into an earring which Pilate has worn since. Circe tells Milkman she has stayed in the Butlerís house because she hated them and wants to see their material wealth turn to dust. She has moved thirty dogs into the house and let them tear it apart. She plans to die there. She gives Milkman directions to the cave. When he gets to it, he finds no gold. Instead of going back to the Reverend Cooper, he buys a ticket for Virginia.
In Virginia he rents a car. His car breaks down in the town of Shalimar, exactly where he wanted to go. He gets into a fight as soon as he gets to town because he has unwittingly insulted the men of the town by flaunting his wealth in front of them. He gets a message from the store owner that someone is looking for him and has left the message that his day has come. Milkman is disturbed that Guitar would use the warning message of the Seven Days on him, but he thinks Guitar must be in trouble and he dismisses his fears. The old men of the town invite him to go hunting. When he gets out with them that night, they are in such good physical condition that he canít keep up with them. He sits by a tree and thanks of how good it feels to be in connection with the earth. Suddenly, he feels a wire around his neck. He struggles and gets free and runs. Now he knows Guitar is trying to kill him. He tells the old men he was afraid and they laugh at him good naturedly. The next morning, they send him to the house of a woman, Sweet, who takes him in as a lover. With Sweet, he reciprocates love for the first time in his life. From the older people in town, he learns of a woman named Sing, his grandmother, who was Native American. He remembers that Pilate tells a story of her fatherís ghost appearing to her and saying "Sing." Pilate had thought the ghost meant for her to sing as a consolation. Now Milkman knows the ghost was saying his wifeís name.
Milkman goes to Susan Byrdís house, the granddaughter of Singís mother, Hedda. Susan Byrd is non-communicative about the past and he feels heís reached a dead end. As he walks back to Shalimar from Susan Brydís house, he is greeted by Guitar. Guitar tells him he is a thief. He had seen Milkman back in Danville help an old white man load something onto a freight truck and believed it was the gold. He doesnít know why Milkman would have sent it to Virginia, but he believes he has done so and now he plans to wait until the gold arrives and then kill Milkman. Back in Shalimar, Milkman hears the children singing a ring song. It contains words like Pilateís song "Sugarman donít leave me" but the name is "Solomon" here. He figures some of the story out. In the song, Jake, the last son, is left by his father Solomon when his father flies away. Ryna, Solomonís wife or lover, falls on the ground and thrashes around in grief over being left. Milkman knows his grandfather, Maconís original name was Jake.
Back in Michigan, Hagar lost her sense of self the last time she attempted to kill Milkman. She had stood over him with a knife and he had looked at her with contempt and told her to stab herself in her genitalia. Then he had walked away. She had stood there for hours cradling her breasts until Guitar had gotten home and taken her to her mother and grandmother. She lay in bed for three days completely oblivious to anything they did to bring her to her sense. Then they showed her a mirror. She decided Milkman didnít love her because she looked so bad. She went out and bought clothes and make up and became so distraught that she stayed out in the rain ruining her purchases. She came back home and tried to get dressed in the dirtied and ruined clothes and makeup. Then she gave up and lay down with a fever. She died soon after. Ruth, Milkmanís mother, arranged her funeral. Pilate and Reba showed up late and sang a song for her, identifying her as their own special child.
Back in Shalimar, Milkman makes a second visit to Susan Byrd. This time she tells him the whole story of his grandparents. The story is made up of folk tale and family tale. During slavery, a group of Africans was brought into the county. After a certain amount of time in slavery, they suddenly flew away. One of the Africans to fly away was named Solomon. He had twenty one children by the same woman, Ryna. When he flew away, he tried to take the smallest child, Jake, but had dropped him. Susan Byrdís grandmother, Hetty, had picked up the child and raised him. Her own daughter was named Sing. When slavery ended, Sing went with Jake and a wagon full of ex-slaves and the family never heard from them again. Milkman is euphoric over the news about his family. He feels proud of his grandfather who refused to remain a slave and flew away like a black eagle. He takes Sweet swimming and Sweet asks him who Solomon left behind.
Guitar goes back home to Michigan and goes straight to Pilateís house. He learns of Hagarís death and he tells Pilate of her parents. He visits his parents and then he and Pilate drive back to Shalimar. He tells her the bones she has been carrying all those years werenít those of the old white man, but of her father. When the Butlers had killed him, they buried him in a shallow grave. Then his body had been carried away by the river and washed up. They had thrown the corpse into the entrance of the cave. When Pilate had come back for the bones, she had mistaken her fatherís bones for the bones of the old white man. Milkman and Pilate bury the bones of Pilateís father at the land formation called Solomonís Leap. Pilate rips her earring off and buries it with her father. A bird comes and takes the earring away. When Pilate stands up, she is shot. She dies quickly. Then Milkman stands up and calls out to Guitar, telling him he, Guitar, can have him if he wants him. He leaps toward Guitar, happy that he has lost all the encumbrances that have kept him from flying all his life.