"No matter how hard we try to ignore it, the mind always knows truth and wants clarity." --From God Help the Child
Toni Morrison published God Help the Child in 2015, at the age of 84. It would be her last novel; she died in 2019 of complications related to pneumonia. The novel contains some thoughtful meditations about loss and aging, and there is a sense of Morrison ‘closing the circle’ as an author here: as many readers and critics have noted, some of the themes covered in the novel intersect with those covered in Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, including especially the fraught relationships between mothers and daughters in families that have experienced trauma, and colorism in the Black community. Also overlapping with The Bluest Eye, child abuse is an important theme in God Help the Child, but violence against children in the book generally remains a little at a distance -- it’s something that happens to several children in the book, but Morrison does not describe it with anything like the intimacy and horror seen in The Bluest Eye.
Major Characters in God Help the Child
Bride: Named Lula Ann Bridewell by her parents, she renames herself “Bride” when she enters the fashion industry. We see her in her early 20s; she’s already risen to a position of some status with a cosmetics company & has her own line of cosmetics, YOU GIRL. She lives in what is apparently Los Angeles.
Sweetness: Bride’s mother. We don’t see a lot with reference to her present circumstances. We know that she doesn’t live in California. She and Bride are not in regular contact. Since Bride's birth, she treated her with some disdain owing to Bride's dark complexion. Bride's dark skin was also a factor in her divorce (shortly after Bride was born).
Brooklyn: A white woman who is Bride’s best friend and co-worker. Dreadlocked, a generally sympathetic figure in the text, though she does engage in some troubling behaviors that suggest that her friendship with Bride may be opportunistic.
Booker Stearborn: Bride’s ex-boyfriend. Bride is recovering from being left by him early in the novel, at first casually but then (as the novel progresses) we come to see that there’s more going on here than we might have expected. Booker is a jazz musician, raised with 'analog' interests in an increasingly digitally-mediated world. His attraction to vintage jazz music points back to Morrison's 1992 novel Jazz. We also learn that Booker's brother was the victim of a sexual predator when the two were young children.
Sofia Huxley: A white woman who is just getting out of a long stint in prison at the beginning of the novel. She was convicted of child abuse as a young teacher after being accused by several children, one of whom was Bride herself (who says she witnessed it, but was not herself subject to it). At various points in the novel, we get passages in her voice.
Queen Olive: Booker Stearborn's aunt. A non-conforming older woman in the text who resembles figures like Pilate Dead from Song of Solomon. She lives on her own in a cabin in the woods, and takes Booker in when he lives the city; she plays a pivotal role in reuniting Booker and Bride towards the end of the novel.
The Abstract Setting of God Help the Child
There are some gaps here and there in the book with respect to time and place, which makes it a little different from most of Morrison's earlier novels. For instance, the reader might be a little confused about when exactly Morrison wants us to understand the novel as taking place. God Help the Child is definitely contemporary (some hints place us in the 2006-2010 time period), and it is definitely urban, set in Los Angeles, with an excursion to rural California in the middle of the book. But we don’t get many of concrete description of neighborhoods or streets in LA, or of the landscape; Morrison doesn’t seem especially interested in those sorts of details in this book; a reader could well be forgiven for assuming the novel is set in New York.
Also, while at times God Help the Child appears to be describing a 21st century media landscape, the technological engagement we might expect to see in a 21st century text sometimes seems inconsistent; for example, at one point, Bride has to ask someone to call a taxi for her as if she doesn't have a cell phone. There’s also no particular engagement with or interest in social media in the book (though there is a critique of it in the chapter from Booker’s perspective later in the book). Finally, the voice of Sweetness, Bride’s mother, is a little hard to place: with her unreconstructed colorism, she sounds at times like someone born and raised in the 1950s, not the 1980s (which she would have had to be if we understand Bride as a millennial: a young adult between 2000-2010).
That said, many long-time readers of Morrison are not troubled by these anomalies, instead noting that the themes in Morrison's last novel (i.e., renaming; the role of cosmetics; colorism within the Black community; structural racism; etc.) point back to themes seen earlier. Bride, as a rebellious young person in conflict with her parents, might remind us of Milkman Dead or Sula Peace. Sweetness' struggles to be a caring mother while dealing with her own inherited/generational trauma resembles the 'bad mother' dynamic seen with Eva Peace, Pauline Breedlove, and Ruth Foster Dead (among many others) in Morrison's earlier novels. Despite the challenges she faces, Bride's struggle involves finding thoughtful and intentional ways to live her life and thrive despite the insidious effects of structural racism.
In this final novel, Morrison is also adding in some new themes to consider. First, while it is appropriate to say that God Help the Child is about surviving injuries (trauma) experienced earlier in life, it is also at times it’s about thinking through what it means when we’ve injured others. Secondly, while Bride suffers because of her parents’ colorism and broader structural racism in American society, she also finds a way to exist and thrive as a Black woman in a new media landscape where her Blackness can be an exoticized and privileged commodity. But that too has a price and may not be a sustainable way to truly thrive, as she discovers over the course of the novel.