[posted by Alice]
Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, was published in April of this year. Though Morrison has chosen an uncharacteristically modern setting for the work, God Help the Child treats themes familiar to readers of her other novels. In particular it focuses on the notion that, “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” These are the words of Sweetness, mother of Bride, the beautiful young woman at the novel’s core. And though the book is about a mother’s failures in the care of her children, it is also about the failures of our society to provide children and their families the support they need – and the ways that racism worsens those failures.
John Gardner said that in all of the forms of non-realistic literature authors tend to translate “details of psychological reality into physical reality,” as happens in our dreams. And though Toni Morrison creates realistic stories with believable characters as she depicts African-American life in the United States, she sometimes brings one or more nonrealistic elements to bear as the story unfolds.
In God Help the Child a nonrealistic trend develops after Bride’s lover Booker misunderstands something she plans to do and walks out on her, saying “You not the woman…” This half-uttered statement, unclear in its implications, not only sets in motion Bride’s journey to the small town of Whiskey in search of Booker, it also seems to trigger her transformation from an exceptionally beautiful mature woman to a prepubescent child. Booker impugns Bride’s womanhood and leaves her without another word of explanation, after which she begins to lose her most womanly attributes, thereby becoming more like the child who experienced the events Booker fails to understand in the first place. And what Bride hasn’t told him is that, in order to win her mother’s approval, when she was a little girl she testified in court that a teacher had sexually molested other children, something she knew to be false.
Earlier in the novel Bride’s mother Sweetness describes her young daughter as “so black she scared me” and herself as “light-skinned, with good hair.” Bride’s dark skin was taken as a sign of Sweetness’ infidelity by Bride’s biological father, who left the family shortly after she was born. Sweetness also says, “Her color is a cross she will always carry. But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.” Sweetness’ negative view of Bride leads her to be a cold and demanding mother who only gives her daughter affection and approval after Bride testifies in court according to Sweetness’ expectations and sends an innocent woman to jail.
To her mother’s surprise, Bride grows up to become a successful businesswoman (with her own cosmetics line, YOU, GIRL), and she is able to use her striking looks to her advantage. But when the woman she falsely accused is released from prison, Bride tries to make amends and is beaten up for her trouble. When Booker, confused about why she would try to make up with a child molester, reacts in the way that he does, Bride begins to experience physical regression to childhood. Her pubic hair disappears, the piercings in her ears close up, she loses her womanly curves, and Bride’s panic and despair as her physical allure is undermined provides at least some of the energy that helps her to come to terms with her past.
Of all Morrison’s novels, God Help the Child reminds me most of Sula, which takes place in an earlier era, mostly prior to World War II. Sula also deals with the hurtful ways parents fail their children, and it contains a scattering of events that seem to represent psychological realities translated into physical ones. As a result the novel shifts between realistic depictions of people’s lives and irreal events that undermine reality. These less realistic aspects include the scene in which Sula slings a child into the lake and leaves him to drown, as well as the presence of a trio of motherless boys named dewey who, despite their differences in appearance and family origin, all answer to the same name and become indistinguishable from one another. A major way in which Sula differs from God Help the Child, however, is in its treatment of community. In Sula the people who live in the African-American section of Medallion, known as the Bottom, are able to function as a community, albeit a sometimes claustrophobic one, whereas God Help the Child implies that our narcissistic individualized contemporary world tends to undermine all human relationships.
Shortly after God Help the Child was released, Toni Morrison gave a reading at the 92nd St. Y in New York. During a discussion about a turn toward the self in the 21st century and how it affects personal development, Morrison says, “And one of the ways you get to be a whole person is you stop thinking about your little self. Am I pretty? Am I not pretty? … And start doing something serious for somebody else.” Though some movement toward community takes place in God Help the Child as Bride tries to understand what happened to her and begins to help others — including another abused child named Rain and Booker’s elderly aunt, Queen — the novel uses the stunting of Bride’s developed womanhood to show how hard developing as a whole human can truly be – especially when family and community fail us.