“Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”
– God Help the Child, page 43
It’s been a little while since I’ve had new Toni Morrison material to absorb, but God Help the Child thoroughly satisfied my itch. Staunchly rooted in the African American experience, and peppered with small echoes of mysticism, God Help the Child fits seamlessly into Morrison’s greater body of literature. It’s not a perfect book, and it doesn’t leave the same impression of her older novels, but it’s still a great read.
While this is the first of Morrison’s novels to be set in contemporary American society, God Help the Child doesn’t feel like the literary experiment it is. Like many of Morrison’s novels, it explores black family dynamics, specifically adult manifestations of child trauma. This particular theme is nothing new to Morrison’s readers, but is explored differently than in The Bluest Eye. Indeed, God Help the Child is a fitting name, as readers follow Bride, a young, successful, dark skinned beauty, and her quest to find affirmation in the aftermath of crushing disappointment and emotional upheaval.
The point of view shifts throughout, from Bride, to her mother, to other important people in Bride’s story. While it’s a format that takes some getting used to, it allows Morrison to tell a more complete story. For example, Bride’s abuse from her light skinned mother, Sweetness, is given a new (yet no more forgiving) meaning when recounted from her mother’s perspective. God Help the Child begins with Sweetness’ perspective, lamenting her daughter’s “Midnight black, Sudanese black” skin. Her testimony claims that not only is her daughter’s darkness not her fault, it was also a burden—a stain upon what could have been a great life. Her inability to accept her daughter, even years later, sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
But God Help the Child is also a love story of sorts. A twisted, broken—and at times violent— love story between Bride and Booker, a mysterious young man with childhood trauma of his own. Having distanced herself from her mother ages prior, Bride doesn’t seek affirmation from Sweetness, but from the man who grabbed his clothes and left her with a biting “You not the woman I want.” Honestly, there were times in the book when I didn’t want them to be together. Their “love story,” and the fact that she literally becomes less of a woman in his absence, were my only qualms with an otherwise relatable book. Their love story has all the red flags of passion, but none of softness of true love. But perhaps I scoffed because it isn’t my love story, or one I’d want for my loved ones. Their love is no less problematic than they are individually, and I can accept that.
With Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes merely two on Toni Morrison’s list of accolades, few would dare to contradict her writing skills. God Help the Child is Toni Morrison for a new generation—a generation that read Beloved and the Bluest Eye in high school and college literature courses, but now looks for something they can relate to much more intimately.
In short; it’s certainly not Morrison’s best work, but it definitely doesn’t disappoint. Without spoiling much more of the book for others (it is still a relatively recent release), I can say that it didn’t let me down. Moreover, the fact that sexual violence, colorism, and other prominent themes from her previous novels remain so relevant in contemporary society reinforces her status as a social commentator for the ages.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Release date: April 21, 2015