God Help the Child
“Toni Morrison’s gorgeously written, riveting, poignant novel is her finest work since Beloved. . . . a stunning work.”
“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget,” says Sweetness, one of the narrators of Toni Morrison’s new novel God Help the Child. And does it ever. God Help the Child explores, through multiple voices, how children can be damaged by abuse, racism, abandonment, insult, cruelty, neglect, and lack of love. Toni Morrison’s gorgeously written, riveting, poignant novel is her finest work since Beloved.
God Help the Child is narrated by a number of different characters as well as a third-person narrator. The diverse voices help to weave together the story of Bride, originally named Lula Ann, a gorgeous, dark-skinned cosmetics executive who was rejected and unloved because of her blackness by her lighter-skinned mother. Each chapter and narrator adds to and is a part of Bride’s story. Most of the characters in the novel reveal that they too have been hurt and scarred.
Thematically, God Help the Child revisits some of the same topics found in many of Morrison’s previous works such as racism, self-loathing, abuse, and the relationships between parents and children, especially mothers and daughters.
Like Pecola Breedlove of The Bluest Eye, Bride too is insulted, rejected, abused, and treated cruelly because of her blackness. Pecola knows that the storekeeper’s rudeness to and “distate must be for her, her blackness” just as Bride’s mother is “embarrassed” and disgusted by her daughter’s “blue-black” “terrible color.”
Both Pecola and Bride also hate themselves and try to transform themselves. In The Bluest Eye, Pecola wishes for blue eyes like the blond-haired, fair-skinned Shirley Temple. She eventually goes mad and believes that she has blue eyes. Similarly, Bride feels that “Once again she was the ugly, too-black little girl in her mother’s house.” As an adult she accentuates her skin color and compensates by she dressing exclusively in white. She is also self-destructive, sleeps around, and despite her success, sabotages her achievements at work and in her social life.
While God Help the Child takes place in modern-day California and Beloved is situated in post-Civil War Ohio, the two works depict how past abuse affects mother/daughter relationships.
While Sweetness does not murder her child to protect her from slavery as Sethe does in Beloved, she does spurn her child and defends her behavior by protesting that she is protecting Bride. Sweetness confesses that after Bride was born, “All I know is that for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking at my teat. I went to bottle-feeding as soon as I got home.” She then defends herself: “I still had to be careful. Very careful in how I raised her. I had to be strict, very strict. Lula Ann needed to learn how to behave, how to keep her head down and not make trouble. I don’t care how many times she changes her name. Her color is a cross she will always carry. But it’s not my fault.”
God Help the Child also possesses supernatural and fable-like elements, much like Beloved. Because Bride is fixated on her mother’s treatment of her when she was a child and cannot stand up for herself she physically becomes a child again. The voluptuous, full-figured Bride reverts to a skinny, flat-chested, hairless pre-pubescent girl. Bride’s changes are reminiscent of the physical manifestation of Beloved and Beloved’s transformations. In both works the magical and supernatural blend with literary realism.
Like all of Toni Morrison’s novels, God Help the Child is beautifully written and structured. The language is lyrical and lush. Morrison describes the last time Booker, Bride’s boyfriend, saw his brother Adam: “It was early September and nothing anywhere had begun to die. Maple leaves behaved as though their green was immortal. Ash trees were still climbing toward a cloudless sky. The sun began turning aggressively alive in the process of setting. Down the sidewalk between hedges and towering trees Adam floated, a spot of gold moving down a shadowy tunnel toward the mouth of a living sun.”
Also reminiscent of the structures of The Bluest Eye and Beloved, God Help the Child is narrated by a number of voices, each contributing a different perspective and ingredient to the story. The various narrators are credible and for the most part, well developed.
Although Sweetness opens and closes the novel, she doesn’t narrate much throughout and isn’t a well enough developed character. Bride seems one- dimensional at times, too. Despite this, the novel coheres magnificently and is much richer and more expansive than Morrison’s previous novels Love and Home.
From its compelling title (an allusion to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”) to its opening line “It’s not my fault” and the chilling final line of the fairy tale-like chapter at the end of the book, “So they believe,” God Help the Child is a stunning work.