The latest work from Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison is puzzling until you realize that it’s actually a fairy tale. How else to describe a story about a woman who is so bereft without the man in her life that the lack of him causes her to regress back to childhood—literally. Bride, the book’s beautiful, very young cosmetics tycoon, slowly loses all the physical signifiers of womanhood. Even the holes in her pierced ears close up.
Also strange are the circumstances of Bride’s birth. Named Lula Ann Bridewell, she is born a dark-skinned baby to parents who take refuge in their light skin and “good” hair. The sight of Lula Ann repels them to the point that her mother doesn’t want to touch her and insists she call her “Sweetness” instead of “Mother.” Lula Ann’s father eventually abandons his wife and child altogether. The reader believes that Sweetness’ hard-heartedness comes not only from her internalized racism but also from a desire to protect her daughter.
Sweetness also mentions that her husband was a porter and that Lula Ann was born in the ’90s. At first, this reviewer thought it was the 1890s, but no, Lula Ann was born in the 1990s, which makes her parents’ attitude even more disturbing. Do light-skinned African American parents still reject their dark-skinned children? And who names a child born in 1991 or so “Lula Ann”?
But again, this slim and accessible book is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are timeless. It’s not so much about race but about wounded children, not to mention how pain is passed along—and how pain can be healed, at least partially. Bride has been hurt by her mother’s rejection and has hurt others in return; her lover has been forever scarred by the murder of an adored older brother.
Though this will likely be considered a minor work from one of our greatest novelists, God Help the Child is gracefully written and full of surprises.