Toni Morrison’s ‘God Help the Child’ Is a Cautionary Tale

God Help the Child shows Morrison's skill in fleshing out an idea through language and detail both rich and taut.

We receive each new work from Toni Morrison in a heightened spirit of anticipation and reverence. She is more than one of America’s most accomplished and celebrated writers and thinkers. She is more than someone who helped open the door, literally and figuratively, for the last 40 years of literature by and about black people. In fact, she has performed an invaluable public service for her most impassioned readers.

Morrison’s novels have given voice to black people’s archetypical nightmares and dreams. They have danced along the color line, through the graveyard, and down through American history. Especially for black women, they have spoken with grace and dignity of all the messy complications being black and female in America has brought. And she has done so from not only numerous cultural and historical angles, but from every station of life: as youth and adult, lover and friend, child and mother.

That last dynamic is at the heart of God Help the Child, her 11th novel. Morrison has said this novel is about the unwitting damage parents do to their children in the name of preparing them for this difficult life. But it reads more as how the children have to jump through all manner of traumatic hoops undoing that damage, while the parents stand off to the side, hoping for the best.

This is not her most spectacular novel, and at a brisk 178 pages certainly no epic. That heightened anticipation and reverence we bring to her work is rewarded mostly in her tone and craft, and in her penchant for invoking the magical to explain, and also resolve, the mundane. Like her best work, God Help the Child feels like a ghost story, except it’s about the fearsome things inside us more than any external horror.

Our heroine is Bride, a dark-skinned beauty who seems to be not unlike many other women of today: accomplished in her professional career (at a beauty company), working through relationship issues at home. But she carries a dark secret from her childhood, rooted in large part in her mother’s reaction to her skin tone, that exacts a toll from her throughout the story.

As Morrison carefully unfolds Bride’s path to confronting her secret, we meet others who grapple with demons implanted long ago – Booker, Bride’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, and Rain, a young girl we meet by the side of the road who ends up helping Bride in her hour of need. We come to learn much about these characters, but less about the mothers and fathers who sent the tone for their tortured paths.

We do get to know Bride’s mother, Lula Ann, through passages in which she speaks directly to the reader. She has regrets about the choices she made in raising Bride, but she doesn’t wish for a do-over, as if one were possible. Instead, it is she who intones the novel’s title, as if it’s all in the world she can do at this point.

Morrison uses magic and folklore to hint at Bride’s secret, but doesn’t fully reveal it until a confrontation with Booker. She has gone to great lengths to track him down and give him a piece of her mind, but when it turns out to be this particular piece, it’s more blurted out than fleshed out. Booker’s big reveal to Bride happens immediately afterwards, and in the same fashion. That’s how such news often gets communicated in life, but usually there’s a longer, more intimate conversation to follow. Here, the dialogue seems awkward and rushed, as if Morrison needs to get this information out to the characters (we already know it, or at least sense what’s amiss) in order to keep the story moving.

In any event, there’s little time for the news to settle, as calamity soon strikes Booker’s family. But it’s that calamity that draws Bride and Booker together, closer than they’ve ever been.

God Help the Child is in some respects a cautionary tale, at least for us readers: as parents, your actions always bear consequences that your children will have to surmount. We’re left to wonder if its characters will recognize that lesson, and if so how they’ll carry on in the future.

If this seems a lesser novel among Morrison’s work, it’s only because her particular bar is quite high. But God Help the Child shows how her skill has evolved, in its fleshing out of a basic idea through language and detail both rich and taut. Its economy is virtuous, especially as it tells so many difficult life stories. Then again, life itself is often difficult. That Morrison conveys so much of that difficulty, and from multiple perspectives, in such a compact space is perhaps her most magical feat here.

RATING 7 / 10