Saturday, May 09, 2015

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is a national – no an international treasure -- but she is first and foremost, “our treasure.”  At 84, she continues to produce some of the finest works of fiction published today.  Her eleventh novel came out in April 2015.  When a Morrison novel enters my reading radar, I pounce and place it on the top of the pile.  Even with only 178 pages, God Help the Child packs every bit of joy, anger, hatred, prejudice, and love, as any of her works.  All this energy and emotion becomes embedded in a story a finely drawn as a silk sheet as it gently glides to cover us.  

God Help the Child is Morrison’s first novel set in the present day.  How timely with the events of Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore to name a few.  Lula Ann, or Bride – as she calls herself – has a stunning beauty which attracts the attention of men and women alike.  Not only gorgeous, she has a rare and sensitive intelligence.  She also displays a justly confident spirit.  As the novel opens, Sweetness says, “It’s not my fault.  So you can’t blame me” (3).  The event she disavows is the birth of her daughter, Lula Ann.  The baby is blue-black, and Sweetness cannot bear to even touch the child.  Lula Ann repulses her.  The father, Louis, abandons the family, accusing Sweetness of infidelity.

This reminds me of Kate Chopin’s short story, “Desiree’s Baby.”  In the story, a couple argue and fight over the color of a baby.  The husband cruelly says to his wife, “You are not white!”  He expels her from the house, and she takes the baby and disappears.  But this 19th century story set in Louisiana is the thinnest of shadows of Morrison’s novel.  She digs deeply into the psyche of Lula Ann, who struggles to overcome enormous obstacles in her family and society at large.

Each chapter has a different Narrator.  Sweetness opens and closes the novel, and the others – Bride, Brooklyn -- Bride’s best friend at the cosmetics company which employs both of them.  Sofia and Rain are also important characters.  On several occasions, an omniscient narrator intervenes and spreads lots of insight into the characters.

Morrison’s words overflow with emotions and tension.  In a chapter narrated by Sweetness, Morrison writes, “Oh, yeah, I feel bad sometimes about how I treated Lula Ann when she was little.  But you have to understand: I had to protect her.  She didn’t know the world.  There was no point in being tough or sassy even when you were right.  Not in a world where you could be sent to a juvenile lockup for talking back or fighting in school, a world where you’d be the last one hired and the first one fired.  She couldn’t know any of that or how her black skin would scare white people or make them laugh or trick her” (41).  How awful and painful it must be to have to shelter a child from centuries of hate and prejudice.  It sickens me and makes me ashamed that my country – the land of freedom – allows the ugly and pernicious actions of some people to result in murder, riots, and mass incarceration.

Read Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child and begin to try and understand what African American mothers have experienced for more than 400 years.  My highest rating is still inadequate 5 stars.

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