God Help the Child
By Toni Morrison
178 pages, $24.95
Audiobook, read by the author
Random House Audio
5 CDs, 6 hours, $30
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
No child is inviolate in Toni Morrison’s cunning new novel – a fable and stage-worthy tone poem titled “God Help the Child.”
Its tale is a timeless one, although seemingly for today, its protagonists almost all adults remembering, in the words of one, “About us as kids, things that happened, why we did things, thought things, took actions that were really about what went on when we were just children.”
Morrison, the United States’ only living Nobel laureate for literature, is, as always, strong and clear here – spelling everything out in ways so simple that her words go straight to our souls.
“What you do to children matters,” her character “Sweetness” realizes at the book’s core, adding the chilling, prophetic caveat: “And they might never forget.”
Sweetness – mother of “Bride,” the focus of the novel – is a light-skinned “high yellow” woman initially so shamed by her daughter’s “Midnight black, Sudanese black” skin that she tells the child to call her Sweetness “instead of ‘Mother’ or ‘Mama.’ It was safer. Being that black and having what I think are too-thick lips calling me ‘Mama’ would confuse people. Besides, she has funny-colored eyes, crow-black with a blue tint, something witchy about them too.”
Bride (born Lula Ann Bridewell) is 6 when she sees her mother’s landlord sexually abuse a small boy: “When I told Sweetness what I’d seen, she was furious. Not about a crying little boy, but about spreading the story … she was interested in keeping our apartment. She said, ‘Don’t you say a word about it …’ ”
And Bride doesn’t. Not till she is 23 and confides in her boyfriend, Booker. “Now five people know,” he responds. “The boy, the freak, your mother, you and now me. Five is better than two but it should be five thousand.”
Booker is also the first to learn that Bride, in a misguided 8-year-old’s bid to curry her mother’s favor, falsely accused a schoolteacher of molestation: “Frightened as I was to appear in court, I did what the teacher-psychologists expected of me,” she recalls. “Brilliantly, I know, because after the trial Sweetness was kind of motherlike.”
Morrison has long let deception, cruelty and racism serve as springboards for her fiction – and “God Help the Child” is no exception, with Bride growing, along with the scars of her childhood, into a woman of stunning outward beauty, a study in black wearing only white, “all sable and ice … a panther in snow.”
She is a highly successful entrepreneur with her own cosmetics line (“YOU, GIRL”), her own Jaguar and – until the night Booker says, “You not the woman” – the man of her dreams. The ensuing parable is simple: Nothing outward can fill a hole in the soul. Smoke and mirrors cannot repair the wounds of childhood.
But, in Morrison’s hands, turnabout is always possible – so she sends Bride, like many a child in a fairy tale, to find Booker. It is a journey that will showcase not only Bride but also her friend and colleague Brooklyn (“white girl with blond dreads”); Sofia (the innocent schoolteacher fresh from jail); Sweetness (self-satisfied as ever); “Rain” (a Caucasian child being raised by hippies) – and, finally, Booker along with his wise, wonderful and once-wild aunt, “Queen.”
A motley crew on a deep spiritual quest – one made lyrical by Morrison’s penchant for writing more for the ear than for the eye. With this in mind, some readers may prefer the audio version of “God Help the Child,” intoned by Morrison herself, her distinctive and commanding voice belying the fact that she is now 84.
Nearly every character in this, her 11th novel, is imbued with deep past wounds festering into adulthood.
“My life is falling down,” says Bride. “I’m sleeping with men whose names I don’t know and not remembering any of it. What’s going on? I’m young; I’m successful and pretty. Really pretty, so there! ... So why am I miserable? Because he left me? I have what I’ve worked for and am good at it. I’m proud of myself, I really am, but it’s the Vicodin and the hangover that keep me remembering some not-so-proud junk in the past.”
Visual, visceral and multilayered, “God Help the Child” is quick and spare in style, Morrison packing in fact after fact in such easy paragraphs as: “The road to Norristown is lined with neat, uniform houses built in the fifties and added on repeatedly – a closed side porch, a garage expanded for two cars, backyard patio. The road looks like a kindergarten drawing of light-blue, white or yellow houses with pine-green or beet-red doors sitting smugly on wide lawns. All that is missing is a pancake sun with ray sticks all around it …”
But it is in Morrison’s rendering of what Bride aptly calls “helplessness in the presence of confounding cruelty” that “God Help the Child” shines.
“You mean you don’t have a home?” Bride asks the small, mysterious Rain. “I used to,” the child tells her, “but my mother lives there.”
Yes. Rain’s biological mother who offered her child to men, $20 per sexual favor. And Booker’s family – which tried to pretend that his brother Adam (older but “close as a twin”) was never murdered by the pedophile considered by others to be “the nicest man in the world.” Not to mention Queen’s daughter Hannah, fondled as a child by her father while her mother “refused to believe it.”
Who survives in the end, and what does he or she become? Does anyone get, as Brooklyn puts it, “to live life like it really is life”? A reader cannot help but ask the questions as page by page, from kaleidoscopic points of view, the terribleness of these childhoods manifests itself.
Even the names – Bride, Sweetness and Rain in particular – carry meaning. And when Bride, encountering fire and brimstone along her fairy tale way, finds her breasts and pubic hair receding and then discovers the lost Booker living in an actual forest, the metaphors continue.
Morrison rewards us with wit as well, Bride at one point noting that “Good sex was not knowledge. It was barely information.” In another, she laments her sex life becoming “sort of like Diet Coke – deceptively sweet minus nutrition.”
Ancient themes abide here and it is Booker, often the novel’s sage, who addresses that of racism: “Scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice. Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice. Folks who practice it would be nothing without it.”
Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize-winner, recipient of the National Book Critics Award, Morrison is a national treasure. Her latest book – most akin perhaps to her classic 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye” – can be read on many levels. The finest of these is best described in the words of Booker – who considers his aging Aunt Queen’s most profound life regret “deeper than her mind.” So too Morrison beckons, in “God Help the Child” – to those of us willing to go deeper than our minds.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.