God Help the Child, Toni Morrison

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Toni Morrison writes with a voice like no other. Her novels dig deep into the human soul, and no one writes about trauma and scars and how they make us who we are better than her. I have always been deeply affected by her books, but since the advent of #blacklivesmatter and my own burgeoning understanding of how perniciously deep the roots of white supremacy go, I am beginning to see her work through a new lens. Race and its effect on her characters have always played a big role in her books, and God Help the Child is possibly one of the best examples of her ability to uncover difficult truths around race and the impact of white supremacy.

God Help the Child, like many of Morrison's books, is not a straight-forward linear narrative, though unlike some of her other books the timeline in the novel is essentially in chronological order. The main character is a woman named Bride, though throughout the book there are chapters told from the perspective of other female characters, as well. Bride's mother, her best friend, a paroled convict, a little girl...Every female character in the novel, with one exception, tells her own truth in her own words. Bride is a black woman; blue-black, in fact. This trait affects her entire life, from her birth, to her career decisions, to her relationships. Over the course of the novel, bits and pieces of Bride's life, and the other characters' opinions about or contributions to it, are doled out a morsel at a time-occasionally sweet, often bitter, sometimes both. Bride has a secret in her past, one that culminates in the complete dissolution of everything that she'd worked to become.

There is so much to dive into here. I'm certain if I read it again I would pick up on even more depth and meaning. But here are a few things that stood out to me. First, Morrison once again plays with narrative structure in a way that suits her purpose if not the conventions of writing fiction. The first part of the novel is all told as alternating voices from most of the female characters in the book. Those chapters are like puzzle pieces-the whole picture doesn't emerge without the inclusion of each person's individual thoughts, experiences, and emotions. The second half of the novel switches to third person, and I think it's telling that the first thing she writes about in this less personal voice is the one male character in the book, named Booker. We learn a lot about Booker, as she details his life from childhood through the present, and we can begin to see how his own experiences led to his later actions.

Another thing that stood out to me was the way that Morrison highlighted how our experiences as children can come to define us, and affect us in ways that we don't always recognize until much later in life. Our childhood selves can become a weight that we drag around with us, holding us back from meaningful relationships or self-awareness. Bride's mother, Booker, Bride's best friend, and Bride herself are all trying, in one way or another, to cover their emotional scars-with work, avoidance, reinvention, rationalization-but ultimately each must confront their own responsibility,  not for the things that happened to them, but to the way in which they either hold on to or let go of the burden.

There is also a lot in the book about power-who has it, where it comes from, why people want it, etc...Not always power in the traditional sense, though that is certainly there, but the power that comes from self-efficacy and self-determination. This is most obviously seen with Bride, though there are glimpses of it with other characters as well. As Bride starts to lose her sense of herself, her body goes through a literal transformation, bringing in the magical realism that Morrison is known for from novels like Beloved. As she loses and gains her power, we see her start to revert back to the too-black little girl named Lula Ann that she thought she had left behind when she reinvented herself as Bride, and then regain her physical maturity as she confronts the burdens of her own past.

I listened to the audiobook on this one, partly because I am avoiding the news on my daily commute right now because I can't stand to hear one more horrible, cruel, buffoonish thing the current resident of the White House says, but mostly because Toni Morrison herself narrated it. What a treat, to hear her voice reading her words. I could listen to her read from her works all day long. Overall, I think this is one of her most accessible books, and one that compares with some of the best from her early career.


  1. This sounds like a very timely book considering what's going on in our country right now.

    1. There were definite parallels. So many of her books deal with particular time periods in the past, but this one is definitely contemporary, and sadly still relevant. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


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