God Help The Child, Toni Morrison
For me, this was a tender story about growing up black with all of the pain and hardship that may one day be rewarded with success and joy. The struggles of the children that witness or suffer from the senseless crime and prejudice coming from within their own community and the anger they harbor towards the white community, can sometimes cripple their growth and keep them from reaching their potential. Emotionally these young characters were unable to let go of their grief and anguish long enough to enable them to move on and become responsible adults.
When “Sweetness” gives birth to a child with unusual skin color and hair, she rejects her. The child, Lula Ann, grows up feeling neglected and is emotionally scarred. She is blue black, the color of tar, and Sweetness is “high yellow”. The father does not believe that she can be his daughter, but in fact, Sweetness says that probably 20% of white people are walking around with mixed blood from blacks who passed for white, like her grandmother. Her grandmother abandoned her own family and entered the Caucasian world, without looking back.
As Lula Ann grows up, she is the butt of insulting racial remarks and often suffers the abuse of bullies who taunt her about her color. To obtain her mother’s withheld affection, when in grade school, she identifies an innocent teacher as a child molester. The teacher is sent to prison for 15 years and is then rejected by her own family. Lula Ann can never quite get over that transgression, and she eventually fails in her attempt to make it up to the woman.
As a teen, Lula Ann leaves school and takes several jobs, eventually winding up successful as a regional manager of a cosmetics company with her own brand of cosmetics called “You, Girl”. She learns how to take advantage of her stark black color and dresses only in white to accentuate her beauty. She changes her name and calls herself Bride. Her real name is Lula Ann Bridewell. At the time she meets and falls for Booker Starbern, an educated young man, he is not very gainfully employed. He takes occasional gigs playing his trumpet. Music helps him release the anger within him. When his older brother Adam was a child, he was murdered after being sexually assaulted, and Booker has been grieving his loss for most of his life. Like Lula Ann, he is estranged from his family except for one aunt.
After an argument with Lula, when she inadvertently admits to something she did which dredges up his anger and the memories of his deceased brother, he leaves her and she begins to wither. In her mind, she sees herself growing younger and smaller, thinner and less developed, regressing to the hurt and angry child she once was. She attributes this decline of her spirit and mind, to the moment Booker walks out on her. She sets out to find him and in that effort she is injured and weakened even further. She is discovered in her smashed car by a child named Rain and her guardians. Rain had been sexually abused and was found in the street, rain-drenched, by Steve and Evelyn. By choice, they live in a cabin without many modern conveniences. They took Rain into their home and cared for her. There is some question in my mind as to the legality of it, but since her mother was acting as her pimp, this young girl is much safer with the white couple who rescued her. Rain also has many problems to work through because of her mother’s irresponsible and criminal behavior. Steve, Evelyn and Rain tend to Lula Ann’s recovery together. Lula Ann provides the emotional connection to a human being that Rain seeks and that Lula Ann has been searching for, for most of her life.
When Lula Ann recovers, she sets out again to search for Booker. She must find out why he has rejected her and why that little spat destroyed their relationship so completely. When they reunite it begins with violence, but it ends peacefully. Bride realizes that she never really knew Booker that well, they simply had good sex. When a tragedy occurs, it draws them closer together, which followed by a surprise announcement from Lula Ann, suddenly makes Booker mature and gives us our fairytale ending.
The book is a study in stark contrasts of color, station in life, injustice, abuse, devotion, and survival. Most of the characters are suffering in some way because of their own needs and as a result of their own actions. Booker’s Aunt Queen has been with too many men and has too many children that she was unable or unwilling to care for. She deplores the violence of the young because the anger they harbor within their souls enslaves them and retards their development into responsible adults.
The names of the characters seemed somewhat indicative of their station in life. Booker Starbern enjoys reading books and is educated. He writes poetry referring to the stars and Bride notes the fact that when he sees them, they may no longer exist. Bride (Lula Ann) dresses in white and enjoys fashion, hence the name she took. Aunt Queen is the adult that Booker respects. She is the matriarch. Sweetness was the name her mother was given by Lula Ann’s father before he left. Rain was rescued from an abusive life because of the rain. Brooklyn, named for a tough borough, is hardened by her past life. Although she seemed to be able to second guess Lula Ann’s motives, and although she helped her, in the past, she disagreed with what she was doing and viewed her behavior as a sign of weakness. She doesn’t trust Booker. Both Bride and Booker ran away from life when it became too much.
The book opens the door to a racial conversation, as I felt that there were threads of racist beliefs running through the narrative. There are issues of blacks preying on blacks, whites taking advantage of blacks, blacks ridiculing whites and whites rescuing blacks. The biases dominate and define all of the behavior and all of the interactions of the characters. This is a good book for a book group if they can have an honest conversation about race and about life, as it is viewed from both black and white eyes. It is a very different landscape for each. There is also much to discuss about the justice system and the prevalence of sexual abuse in the community.
The book is read expressively and somewhat dreamily by the author, with perfectly modulated tone and inflection.