This lyrical novel, the story of a man desperately trying to find his roots so he can fit in somewhere, won the Nobel Prize. It chronicles the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, from birth—the novel opens with a man trying to fly off the top of a hospital, triggering his mother’s labor—until possible death; the ending is uncertain.
Born in Michigan, Milkman wants to learn more about his family and the mysterious treasure his father had buried on a farm. He makes his way first to Pennsylvania, then eventually Virginia, trying to understand his family’s legacy while simultaneously being alienated from his family.
Besides the title, there are Biblical references throughout the novel: Milkman’s mother is Ruth; his sisters are Magdalene and First Corinthians (no, really) and he has an aunt named Pilate, whose daughter is Reba and whose granddaughter is Hagar.
There’s also Guitar, a family friend who belongs to a group called Seven Days, whose mission is to kill white people in retaliation of the racial killing of blacks. Guitar’s revenge extends to him wanting to kill nearly everyone by the end of the novel, setting himself up in a showdown with Milkman.
Unlike the Poisonwood Bible, the use of religious undertones here about family and revenge is what makes the story so compelling. Milkman wanders through three different states before ending up in the same place he started. And like the hymn on which the book is based, Milkman learns how to fly.