God Help the Child: A Novel by Toni Morrison, 192 pp. Alfred A. Knopf 2015. $16.58 hardcover
The ostensible protagonist of writer and critic Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, is Bride, a young woman who is described by her light-skinned mother as “Midnight black, Sudanese black” (Morrison 3). But another equally formidable force in the novel is Trauma; racial trauma, sexual trauma, class trauma, gendered trauma. The novel explores the myriad number of ways that childhood traumas play themselves out in Bride and the characters’ adult lives. But while the novel is about these fictional characters the subject matter is so widespread that the reader will easily connect emotionally with the narrative.
The narrative is divided into brief first and third person narratives; some more transparent than others. They all act as threads that woven together construct a tapestry of not only profound injustice, sorrow and anger, but also, ultimately, the power of love and its power to facilitate redemption and forgiveness.
Many images with which we are all too familiar are summoned in the novel’s telling. These range from individual violations against the body and the spirit held in secrecy such as those which Bride suffer to mass assaults such as that of the unsolved Atlanta Child Murders about which the novelist Toni Cade Bambara felt compelled to write in Bride’s lover, Booker‘s recounting of his memory of the disappearance, rape, and murder of his older brother, Adam. If we look at current statistics about the number of girls who are sexually assaulted by the time they are eighteen years old—roughly 1 in 4—then we can deduce that many of Morrison’s readers will identify with the story. If we look at the statistics for boys—about 1 in 20—then that number is compounded.
Moreover, when we consider the number of people of color who are incarcerated—mostly men, but an increasing number of women—then we can empathize with Sophia, imprisoned for a number of years for a crime she did not commit. Morrison does a masterful job of drawing out her story, allowing the reader to get to know her and understand how deeply she has been victimized.
In a scant 178 pages Morrison manages to tell a complex tale that reads like a parable for the many lessons that it holds. The narrative style is immediately accessible, which is not always true of the author’s work. As a powerful piece of literature it would work well in a number of both undergraduate and graduate courses. It draws on various long and intersecting histories to explore prescient contemporary issues. These include, but are not limited to intra-racial prejudice, pedophilia, assimilation and appropriation, spiritual versus physical death, and capitalism and its discontents.
There are moments in the novel that may seem like Morrison loses her way with Bride. For example, Bride’s extended stay in a remote town in California with a family that has shed the trappings of the “modern” world may seem misplaced. However, if considered as part of the whole novel, this seeming digression holds lessons for not only Bride, but the reader as well. We may think of it as part of the protagonist’s path to spiritual healing that will ultimately allow her to come into her own as a fully realized being. Indeed, her path holds lessons for the reader. The novel’s final chapters along with its ending line, “Good Luck and God help the child” (178), offer a hint of hope as well as a warning for the future to not only the wounded souls who walk the earth, but those, as yet innocent, to come.