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Meridian | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Meridian

Beginning at the Story's End

The novel opens with a scene that actually occurs at a time just before the events described at the end of the novel. Truman Held has been in and out of Meridian Hill's life since she was a teenager. He has once again come to find her. This time she is in Chicokema, Georgia. As he arrives in town, she is protesting against the town's prejudice and discrimination toward poor people and African Americans. Her protest has been spurred by the town not allowing African Americans to view the traveling circus show except on Thursday. The show is a fake mummified woman's body. So Meridian decides to lead the children into the circus wagon on a different day, whether the town likes it or not. Truman watches her actions and then goes to her house. He finds no furniture there and decides to take a nap on the porch until Meridian gets home.

Meridian is carried into the house and placed on her sleeping bag by four men. When Meridian engages in intense civil rights protests like this one, she often slips into a state of paralysis after it. The men are used to carrying her safely home. Truman also observes many people bring food to the house, their way of thanking her for her heroics. He notes the sickly aura Meridian has about her.

When Meridian wakes up, she and Truman have a brief exchange that reveals their familiarity with each other's personalities and motivations—which are very different. The story shifts back a decade to a point in Meridian's life when she defines herself as a civil rights activist opposed to violent protests. This event is intermingled with her memories of her childhood, especially her mother's impact on her. Meridian's focus for 10 years has been based on her decision to leave the violent part of the movement behind in the North. She has been serving the people of the South by living among them and taking odd jobs to support herself.

The narrative returns to the point at which Truman finds Meridian in Chicokema. He reflects on how each time he visits her, she has fewer material possessions. Meridian says that it is time to "let each other go." Truman says he knows she let him go long ago and it is he who must let her go. They make reference to Lynne, Truman's estranged wife, and their daughter Camara, who has died. They also discuss Meridian's health, with Meridian saying she is still strong.

The narrative is interrupted by a list of real people who died as martyrs during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. The names in the list are separated only by slashes, with well-known people mixed in with lesser-known names. The approach indicates that the names have all blended together in a sea of televised violence. This leaves people to grieve on their own in front of their sets.

College Years

Near the end of the first chapter, the narrative shifts back to Meridian's college years. This is the moment she and her friend Anne-Marion watch President Kennedy's funeral on the television in their dorm room at Saxon College.

Chapter 2 continues in this time frame. It tells the story of Meridian's concern for a young homeless girl who lives in the slums around Saxon College. Known only as Wile Chile, the young teen scavenges for food, clothing, and cigarette butts in trash cans. She runs away whenever anyone calls to her. When Wile Chile comes to Meridian's attention, she is heavily pregnant, and Meridian is determined to rescue her. She waits patiently until she can catch the girl. As Meridian bathes the filth from the girl's body, the girl loudly curses her. She cannot act civilized at the dining table, and the house mother of the dormitory where Meridian lives tells her the girl must go. While Meridian searches for a safe place for the girl, Wile Chile escapes. As she runs wildly across a busy street, she is killed by a speeding car.

Anne-Marion and Meridian are pallbearers intent on carrying Wile Chile's body in its beautiful coffin into the Saxon College chapel for a proper service. However, the funeral procession is stopped outside the campus. Rumors are coming down the line that the president of the college has denied access to the chapel. From where Anne-Marion and Meridian stand, they can see the famous tree on the campus known as The Sojourner. The narrative is interrupted with the telling of the legend behind this tree.

It is said that a slave named Louvinie on the Saxon plantation buried her tongue under the tree. Her tongue was cut out after she was falsely blamed for the death of the youngest Saxon son. The plantation existed where Saxon College is now. The magic of that is what is believed to have allowed the tree to become so big and beautiful. In the 1920s, a student named Mary at the college was imprisoned in a room (where she committed suicide) for becoming pregnant. The Sojourner had been her only comfort on the campus. Since Mary's death, the students have danced around the tree on May Day, asking that their lives not be similarly destroyed by unwanted pregnancies.

As the funeral procession continues, it becomes clear that the chapel door has been locked and placed under guard. The pallbearers leave the coffin on the steps of the chapel as the mourners from the slums slink away. The college's action outrages the students, and they begin to riot. They take Wile Chile's casket and place it beneath The Sojourner. When the coffin is moved to a local African American cemetery, the students take out their wrath that night by chopping down the beautiful tree.

Back to Childhood

With Chapter 4, the narrative moves backward in time. Meridian thinks about her childhood and how she feels herself characterized by the guilt she feels as her mother's daughter. Readers learn about Mrs. Hill's resentment from having to give up her job as a teacher and her independence due to marriage and motherhood. Meridian feels that she somehow ruined her mother's life, and she never feels appreciated. Even when she apparently finds a bar of gold at age seven, no one in her family pays attention to her, and so she buries it under a tree.

Meridian's relationship with her father does seem healthier than what she has with her mother. She quietly observes his kindness and sense of fairness—especially toward the Native Americans and their history of suffering. She grieves with him when farmland in their family containing a sacred Native American burial ground is taken by the government and turned into a tourist attraction.

Early Sex and Its Aftermath

By Chapter 7, Meridian has reached the age of sexual experimentation. But she enters it with a total "lack of information on the subject of sex ... [and] a seeming lack of concern about her ... morals." So, although she has sex nearly daily, Meridian is shocked to find herself pregnant at age 16. Her boyfriend, Eddie, is a good person and marries her readily. However, Meridian is expelled from school for being pregnant. Eddie provides for them without dropping out of school with the help of his parents and by working overtime at the restaurant job he already held.

Meridian does not want the baby and never thinks of it during her pregnancy. She loses interest in sex—although she never cared that much about it anyway—and doesn't care that Eddie takes a lover. After the baby is born, Meridian clearly suffers from postpartum depression. She thinks alternatively of killing her son or herself, remaining in a constant state of lethargy and becoming critical of everyone and everything around her.

Before long, Eddie leaves Meridian with their son. Still uninterested in motherhood, Meridian takes Eddie, Jr., to her mother-in-law's house every day. Then she returns home to quietly meditate all day on her condition. She also thinks about her lack of options before going to pick up the baby and bring him home for the night. After a month, Meridian determines that she will join the civil rights movement in her hometown. She goes to volunteer to help with the voter registration drive. That is where she first meets Truman.

Meridian's mother does not approve of her daughter's work in the movement. But the news her daughter tells her a year later makes her even angrier. With the help of the principal of her high school, Meridian has received a scholarship to attend the fictitious Saxon College in Atlanta, and she is giving up her son in order to go.

Returning to the College Years: Activism and Truman

Meridian's first year at Saxon is mostly about hard work and proving herself as a student, and she keeps to herself. Truman goes to college across the street from her, and they have daily contact. Meridian becomes friends with the rebellious Anne-Marion and moves off campus following the Wile Chile incident. She lives in the ghetto surrounding the school where she can feel close to the friendly people. Now she feels less intent on being a perfect student. Meridian becomes more serious about the civil rights movement, which in Atlanta is known as the Atlanta Movement. By the end of her second year, Meridian is also in love with Truman. Around the time she realizes her love for him, Truman turns his attention to several white exchange students who are visiting Saxon who are involved in the movement. He turns his back on any sort of real relationship with Meridian.

Several months later, when Truman comes back to her, Meridian is happy to see him and finally gives in to him sexually. That one night—Truman returns to the exchange student named Lynne afterward—results in Meridian becoming pregnant. She never tells Truman and endures a horrible abortion alone and has her tubes tied during the same procedure. Months later he comes back to her again and begs her to have his "beautiful black babies." Her response is to hit him with her book bag until he bleeds.

Meridian then spirals into a confused period where she takes risks with her personal health and safety. Right around the time of graduation, she begins to experience strange spells of blindness, fainting, paralysis, and an inability to eat. Meridian remains in bed for about a month as these symptoms take over her life. Then Anne-Marion brings Miss Winter, a teacher at the college and lifelong friend of the Hills, to her bedside. Miss Winter somehow finds the words that bring Meridian back to reality and help her begin to heal. Anne-Marion, on the other hand, does not understand Meridian's willingness to suffer at all and walks away from their friendship.

Part 2, Truman Held

Truman and Lynne

Truman's section of the novel begins as his relationship with the white exchange student Lynne Rabinowitz continues beyond college. In 1966 the two leave New York City, where they have been living since college. They go to Mississippi together to work for the civil rights movement. Lynne is excited, but Truman is reluctant.

At some point Truman and Lynne marry, but the difficulties of a mixed-ethnicity marriage during the throes of the civil rights movement bring heat to their relationship from blacks and whites alike. Truman feels it keenly when his activist friend Tommy Odds is ambushed by whites. Tommy is shot in cold blood as he leaves a meeting held in a church. Tommy lives, but he loses half an arm and becomes filled with hatred toward all whites, including Lynne. Until this time most of the African American activists have gladly accepted Lynne among them. Now Truman can see that her whiteness can be a problem. He also begins to be annoyed by the very things that once attracted her to him.

After Tommy Odds rapes Lynne in a gesture of defiance and power over her, her marriage with Truman really begins to disintegrate. She can't talk to him about the rape, and she is no longer welcome in the movement that she has been so passionate about. Predictably, Truman goes to Meridian when the strain of his marriage gets to him, but she refuses to have anything to do with him romantically.

Lynne's Side of the Story

Chapter 19 begins to present Truman and Lynne's relationship from her perspective. Like Truman, Lynne goes to Meridian when she is feeling especially bad. In Chapter 19 Lynne finds Meridian about a year after her daughter Camara's death. An absolute wreck, Lynne knows Truman is also visiting Meridian at this time, which only makes her state of mind worse. She says terrible things to Meridian and has a showdown with Truman, which gets her nothing. Meridian is so appalled by the brutal way Lynne and Truman treat each other that she leaves to go for a walk. She tells them she is locking the house so they must leave. Lynne gets in through an open window after Truman leaves. Wearily, Meridian listens to Lynne's raving until she finally falls asleep.

The next chapters tell what actually happened to Lynne as a result of her love for Truman. Her parents reject her when they find out she is with an African American. Although the African American workers in the civil rights movement in Mississippi are originally skeptical of her involvement, everyone comes to like her. They realize she is genuine in her love for the movement and passionate about her view of the African American culture as "Art." It is shocking when Tommy rapes her and she is pushed out of the movement—and when Truman no longer loves her.

In her loneliness, Lynne draws the African American men back into her world. She lets them have sex with her because she is afraid they will hate her otherwise. Their attention to her does not last for long, and when Truman comes back to her she gets pregnant. However, she leaves him. She chooses to go to New York City and live on welfare with their daughter rather than continuing the charade that her life has become.

Truman, too, comes to New York, where he is originally from. But he and Lynne do not live together and he does whatever he wishes even though they remain married. Lynne goes to his apartment to break the news about an attack on their daughter Camara, evidently a racist attack based on her obvious mixed heritage. Lynne discovers he is living with a tiny blonde girl, and that enrages Lynne. After Camara is killed in New York City, Meridian comes to New York to try to comfort both Truman and Lynne. She stays for a month, shuttling between Truman's nice apartment and Lynne's hovel. Both Truman and Lynne desperately need Meridian, and it wears her out. She tries to be understanding toward Lynne, and she finally completely forgives Truman, but she is happy to return home. When Lynne wakes up in Meridian's house on her visit a year later, she admits to Meridian that all she wants is to have Truman back.

Part 3, Ending

Back to Chicokema via Atlanta

As this part of the novel opens, Meridian is in Atlanta in April 1968 to be present for the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is the beginning of an important turning point in her life. She finally comes to terms with what she perceives as her role in the civil rights movement. This includes her rejection of the violent, revolutionary aspects of it. She notices during the parade how the African American community revels in being brought together. She sees the sense of community they have as a result of the martyrdom of their leader. Rather than feeling sadness around her, she feels a lightness of spirit.

Meridian again feels this need for community strongly when she attends a church service in Atlanta that spring. Her experience at this church is very different from those of her youth. Everything, from the music that is sung to the themes of the stained-glass windows, has changed. She realizes with a jolt that the role of the church itself has changed. The church is now the center of the African American community. Church members need to reassure each other that the losses they have all suffered have not been in vain. They understand that they are all there to the death for each other. In that moment Meridian finally realizes that she will kill if necessary to protect the people who might otherwise be martyred and abused.

Meridian takes her new fierceness to Chicokema, where Truman finds her facing down a tank and joins her in her work. As they did years before, they try to get African Americans interested in registering to vote. However, Meridian grows stronger in her resolution to continue alone, while Truman appears to take on her sickness and to grow weaker. When she says goodbye to him and he takes his place in her house, in her world, he cannot make it. Instead, at some future point the author does not specify, he returns to Lynne in New York City. He tells her he has come to "provide for you and be your friend. Your brother."

Meridian Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Pregnant at 16, Meridian Hill leaves school and marries.

Rising Action

2 Meridian becomes an activist when her husband leaves her.

3 Meridian gives up her son to attend college in Atlanta.

4 Meridian aborts Truman Held's baby without telling him.

5 Meridian returns to activism after college graduation.

6 Truman marries Lynne Rabinowitz, and they are activists in Mississippi.

7 Truman and Lynne's marriage fails, but they have a baby.

8 Meridian goes to comfort them when their daughter is killed.

Climax

9 Truman finds Meridian staring down a tank.

Falling Action

10 Truman and Meridian begin working together.

11 Meridian leaves Truman to carry on without her.

Resolution

12 Truman goes back to Lynne.

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