By Heidi Simmons
Mother’s Day is so much more than a Hallmark invention. Whether present or absent in our lives, mothers make us who we are — good or bad. In Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (Knopf, 183 pages) one woman must learn to overcome her childhood before she can finally grow up.
Lula Ann Bridewell is born so black her father abandons her and her mother because he can’t fathom that the Sudanese black Lula can be his child. Lula’s own mother, Sweetness, is mulatto and can’t figure how her baby could be blacker than midnight. Throughout her childhood, little Lula is rejected, starved for affection and attention.
When Lula is sixteen she changes her countrified name to Ann Bride. Later, she earns an important position in a cosmetic company and is only known as Bride. She buys all her clothing in shades of white and the ugly duckling is now a ravishing dark beauty with her own product line.
Bride’s boyfriend, Booker, is the strong, silent type. They get along great until in an intimate moment she confesses a wrong she wants to make right. Booker doesn’t understand and leaves her. He says he doesn’t know who she is and Bride agrees. Bride soon realizes she loves Booker and wants to know why he would leave so abruptly without his stuff or forwarding address.
Tracking Booker down, Bride confronts him only to discover they have much more in common than she ever thought. Both have been carrying their past with them to the point of self-destruction. After they share their experiences, the two find a new love and a freedom that would never have come if not for their troubled past.
This is author Morison’s eleventh novel. There is such an ease and beauty to the prose that the chapters just slip away and the reader is caught up in a traumatic world where people are raw and real. The narrative unfolds through a handful of characters who shed light on their personal experiences and connections with either Bride or Booker.
All the characters in the novel are damaged in some way. Each struggles to have a good life even with cumbersome personal baggage. These ancillary characters are able to comment and give insight on Bride and Booker because they too understand how childhood trauma can affect adult behavior and choices.
Several characters in the story have suffered from child abuse. Bride witnessed a sex act on a neighbor boy. As a child, Booker’s brother was molested then murdered. A girl called Rain is a runaway after her mother sold her to a man. These horrors and atrocities make life a challenge to the survivors in Morrison’s story. How do you move on? How do you find happiness or a healthy relationship? Can you ever right wrongs?
These themes are woven into the fabric of Morrison’s work. Her characters slowly reveal the ugly side of human behavior as well as great moments of beauty as they rediscover themselves.
Certainly Bride and Booker come together like magnets because of their childhood pathologies. Their push-pull relationship could end in disaster or success. The only remedy is their desire to heal, which requires forgiveness and love. Not always an easy thing to accomplish.
As Bride decides to seek Booker – not to make her whole, but to set things straight about who she is — she goes through a physical transformation. Her body becomes like a child again. She shrinks, her breast and her pubic hair disappear. This physical manifestation becomes a metaphor for reclaiming her childhood, which elevates Bride’s story and her journey.
When Sweetness hears about her daughter’s happiness and that Bride is pregnant, she comes to realize that “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” Her final words to Bride: “Good luck and God help the child.”
Good or bad, mothers are only human and raising other humans is not an easy task. May we love and forgive all mothers and be grateful someone gave us life.
Happy Mother’s Day.