Review of “God Help the Child: A Novel.’’
By Toni Morrison. Alfred A. Knopf.
178 pp. $24.95.
BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
The 11th novel of Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison begins with Mrs. Bridewell’s lamentation that she knew something was wrong the moment she saw her baby. Lula Ann was “Midnight black, Sudanese black.” Mrs. Bridewell and her husband were “light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow.”
Lula Ann’s mother recoiled at touching her daughter’s skin. And she insisted that Lula Ann call her Sweetness: repulsed at her too-thick lips, Mrs. Bridewell decided that “Mama” would confuse people.
She couldn’t “see past all that black to know who she was and just plain love her.”
In response, Lula Ann builds a protective immunity, rebrands herself as “Bride” and becomes a twenty-something Jaguar-driving executive of You Girl, a thriving cosmetics company in California.
But she is miserable. Booker, her boyfriend, with whom she shared “every fear, every hurt, every accomplishment,” has broken up with her, and she is sleeping with men whose names she does not know. Worst of all, the Vicodin and hangovers are making her remember “some not-so-proud junk in the past.”
Like many of her novels, “God Help the Child’’ is a haunting and harrowing examination of the enduring impact of slavery and racism on African-Americans. Her decision to focus on skin color (along with child abuse) in her first work of fiction set in the 21st century is particularly interesting.
“It’s just a color,” Booker maintains. “A genetic trait, not a flaw, not a curse, not a blessing nor a sin.”
Bride acknowledges that his words were rational and, for a time soothing, but at odds with her day-to-day experience – “like sitting in a car under the stunned gaze of little white children who couldn’t be more fascinated if they were at a museum of dinosaurs.”
Although at times “God Help the Child’’ feels “plotted,” Morrison has created compelling characters in Bride, Booker and Sweetness.
Booker, we learn, grew up in a book reading-family shaped by “talk in the flesh and text on paper.”
Every Saturday morning, before breakfast, his parents asked their children two questions: What have you learned that is true (and how do you know)? What problem do you have?
And so he understands (and tells Bride) that “no matter how hard we try to ignore it, the mind always knows truth and wants clarity.” That said, he, too, is struggling with a childhood trauma: the murder of Adam, his older brother, by a serial molester. And so, all too often, the answers to his parents’ questions are “1. So far nothing. 2. Despair.”
Booker is a horn player, but the plot hinges on seven sheets of written reflections about Bride that he sends to Q. Olive, his aunt, for safe-keeping. They are exquisite – and provocative.
Made for each other
Bride’s “imagination is impeccable the way it cuts and scrapes the bone never touching the marrow where that dirty feeling is thrumming like a fiddle…,” the second page reads. Three pages later, Booker claims, “Trying to understand racist malignancy only feeds it, makes it balloon fat and lofty floating high overhead fearful of sinking to earth where a blade of grass could puncture it…”
Bride and Booker, it’s clear, are made for each other. Happily, Booker will apologize to his brother for using him “to chain myself to the illusion of control and the cheap seduction of power. No slave owner could have done it better.”
Bride will “wake up in sunshine from a dreamless sleep.” And each of them will be better prepared to answer his parents’ probing questions: What have you learned that is true (and how do you know)? What problem do you have?
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.