God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Take a number” is what some might say when I say that Toni Morrison is one of my favorite writers. I wonder if I stand alone in saying that sometimes aspects of her storylines confuse me. It happened with Song of Solomon. I almost gave up on reading Beloved and I straight up did give up with Tar Baby or was it Paradise? In my defense, I was barely out of my teens when I read those books and should give them another try now that I’m a mature adult.
Like The Bluest Eye, I sailed through God Help the Child probably because it was eery how easily I could relate to the sadness and longing of a little, dark-skinned girl. That’s not to say that there weren’t components of the story that confused me just a bit, or that it’s a light read. The confusing occurrences (both to myself and the person they happen to) and their subsequent resolutions are part of what I call Morrison’s mystic writing, I suppose. Also, different forms of abuse are rampant in this book barring it from being called an easy read.
The child in need of help applies to every character in the novel. Lula Anne renames herself Bride in an attempt to carve a new identity from her sad, childhood self. Described as a blue-black baby born to fair-skinned parents, Bride’s father walks out on his family and her mother denies all forms of affection starting with forcing Bride to call her Sweetness instead of mother, mama, mom, or any similar name to cloud the mother-daughter relationship to outsiders. Sweetness avoids all physical contact with Bride, even when disciplining Bride, who once wished her mother would slap her just so she could feel her mother’s touch.
While Bride’s dark skin tone was a source of shame and caused her to be deemed ugly when she was a child, it’s considered exotic by the time she’s a young woman. She embraces it, even highlighting it by dressing in head-to-toe white at all times as suggested by a fashion consultant. It’s her beauty and confidence that leads to her relationship with Booker. Scared to push Booker away with questions, even basic ones about family, he remains a virtual stranger to Bride until after their breakup.
Haunted by the kidnapping and death of his older brother when they were kids, Booker allows his grief and anger to consume him, causing tension between not only between him and his immediate family, but also unfairly and unsuspectingly with Bride. Although he is book-smart and a self-taught musician, he’s ignorant in the ways of personal relationships, except with Queen, who in some ways fills many roles in Booker’s life as surrogate mother, aunt and friend.
The other characters whom Bride encounters have their own ghosts, scars and childhood traumas that Bride learns about and cause her to feel a certain empathy for their own suffering. The story moves along through alternative narrative voices, but they always revolve around Bride. In a reflection of her life tinged with traces of guilt, Sweetness remarks “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”
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