Listening to a recent NPR interview, I was reminded that Toni Morrison is now 84 years old, forever wise and unbothered. Some where in my mind she was eternally effervescent, ageless and all knowing. I had hurried to purchase God Help the Child, Morrison’s most recent novel, the eleventh published piece that spans some of the greatest African-American literature. Song of Solomon, was for me prolific in shaping my understanding of what my culture meant, that blurry of a definition to be African American. And so I expected another great awakening with God Help the Child and was left disappointed.
It’s far from a bad read. Rather God Help the Child, is an easy read that breezes through the story of Bride, a dark skin woman born to two light skin parents. Her mother, Sweetness, being left by Bride’s father who thought the child’s blue black skin was a sign of infidelity by Sweetness, raises a child she refuses to touch or love. Sexual abuse, wrongful convictions, colorism, and heartbreak are all woven into Bride’s story as we catch glimpses of her life as a successful business woman in the beauty sector. The biggest theme of colorism is addressed as Bride’s dark skin is the epitome of her beauty that she takes a hold of as an adult, eschewing colors and make-up to wear only white, a stark contrast to her complexion. Morrison with ease draws up an image of a woman who’s divine beauty is held in the same space that brought about distress in her childhood. Where as a child she was meek and searching for acceptance with just the brush of a touch from her mother, as an adult she took each step owning the highness of her beauty. And yet, I still wanted more. This isn’t the first time Morrison has addressed the complexities of colorism in the Black community, this is a strong motif that runs through Song of Solomon, Sula, The Bluest Eyes and Jazz. But here, in the first novel that Morrison sets in the 21st century, it takes on a breezy air that never quit settles.
Morrison tells a story set in the present day but the characters still carry that same old soul air that Morrison is known for. It’s hard to glean the age of Bride as elements of her story don’t make sense for someone born in the late 70s or 80s. Her lover Booker is pulled straight from 1940s, he is the quintessential Morrison character, a meandering trumpet player with a dark emotional past he hasn’t properly dealt with. A man of mystery who pops up and is overtaken by the essence of Bride, but disappears suddenly, capitulating Bride into a childlike reversion as she searches for Booker, only realizing the depths of her love after he has left. And still, it’s just a story, it was cool but not entirely fulfilling. A lot of questions were left and I filled in a lot of the missing pieces of the story because I’m familiar with Morrison’s writing.
I was left feeling like the depth and character development was lacking, largely because the novel was set in present day. Morrison, in the NPR interview, noted that so many of her writings are influenced by her childhood in 1940’s Ohio, raised by two parents who moved north to escape southern racism and passed on stories of traditional African American folklore to their children. Pick any other Morrison novel and you see the influence bright and clear in the story, it’s absolutely part of what I love about her writings. I do not expect Morrison to be all knowing about the modern day young Black woman, nor do I expect her to tell our story exactly. Bride would have been great in the more familiar Morrison time periods.
God Help the Child is a great starter read for teenagers and those who have had a hard time getting into Morrison’s previous works, which are much more layered. It’s a quick and easy read, and I would highly suggest this as a good partner read for teenagers and their mothers. Summer reading isn’t just for the kids and for the busy working mother, this is quick enough to read over a few bathroom + lunch breaks, and surface enough to jumpstart some great conversations with your daughters.
Have you read God Help the Child? What were your favorite characters and/or scene? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Support the OG #SmartBrownGirl and pick up Toni Morrison’s latest novel here.