The mysterious forest may be a threshold experience to the wanderer who recoils under its crowned canopy and scarcity of human life. Embedded in its forgiving presence, the wanderer fears the unknown that the forest unwittingly projects, and, in time, is caught in its uncomprehending silence, diminished in status and strength. If this wanderer named Bride – aka Lula Ann Bridewell, the main character in Toni Morrison’s most recent novel God Help the Child – intended to jump-start an existential crisis of maximum effect, she couldn’t have chosen a better place to break her ankle as she crashes her Jaguar into a tree, spends the night in the forest, and is rescued by a married hippie couple and their “adopted” daughter Rain. Bride is a guest of this family for the six weeks it takes her broken ankle to heal, all the while creating a watershed of insight into what love and happiness might look like, even as the awareness is as foreign as any she has ever experienced. When Bride heals, she begins anew the quest to find the other half of wholeness. His name is Booker Starbern.
Bride is born to a high-yellow mother that rejects the infant just as she changes right in front of her eyes from a pale skin tone to “midnight black, Sudanese black.” She names her Lula Ann and insists that her daughter call her Sweetness, never mama or mother. Refusing to show Lula Ann affection—either the physical or verbal kind that Lula Ann could interpret as love—Sweetness keeps her distance from the child’s black skin. Louis, her husband, abandons mother and daughter without ever touching his child, leaving his wife with the parental task of disciplining her. Sweetness imparts a circumscribed diet of cruelty: keep your head down, don’t make trouble, and, for heaven’s sake, don’t talk back. She informs Lula Ann that her midnight-skin color is a cross she will bear all her life—don’t go looking for more trouble. Sweetness believes this discipline will protect Lula Ann against a cultural skin privilege that fetishizes whiteness.
When the story opens, Bride no longer resembles the fearful little black girl called Lula Ann. She is remade and renamed. Her countrified name erased, shortened to Ann Bride after high school, she now goes by the one-syllable Bride. At twenty-three, she is regional manager at Sylvia, Inc., a cosmetics company, where she sells her own invention called YOU, GIRL: Cosmetics for Your Personal Millennium. A deep, dark stunning beauty, Bride wears no makeup, doesn’t use Botox or go to tanning spas, and dresses in white, like a panther in snow. When Booker Starbern first sees her, he is dumbstruck and can’t help staring at “a young blue-black woman standing at the curb laughing,” waiting for the limousine driver to open the door for her and her best friend Brooklyn, a chalk-white twenty-one year old with blond dreadlocks.
After seeing Bride that first time, Booker heads to the train station where he plays the trumpet with two other musicians. On this particular day, neither guitarist shows, but Booker decides to play alone, “low, muted notes held long, too long, as the strains floated through drops of rain.” Enthralled by her beauty, mystified by his feelings, Booker is transported to a realm he cannot identify. He imagines Bride as his “midnight Galatea always and already alive.” As if in a fairy tale, he sees her a few weeks later in a line at a Black Gauchos performance, works his way through the crush of people: “In music-powered air, with body rules broken and sexual benevolence thick as cream, circling her waist with his arms seemed more than a natural gesture; it was an inevitable one. And together they danced and danced. When the music stopped, his Galatea turned to face him and surrender to him the reckless smile he’d always imagined.” He receives his answer. “‘Bride,’ she said when he asked her name.”
For the six months they are lovers, Bride confides in Booker. He listens as no one has ever listened to her, and she doesn’t ask much in return, except his attentive presence. Yet, Bride has no idea who he is or where he came from. He is a real mystery man. When she’s at the office, she doesn’t know what he does all day or how he supports himself. So, she makes up dramatic stories about him: He’s an informant, a disbarred lawyer, an ex-felon. Little does she know that Booker is a writer, a reader, and a thinker who has earned bachelor and master’s degrees and lives off the money he inherited from his rich grandfather. Oddly, he doesn’t tell her anything about himself or expose the anger he harbors toward the world. Still, his silence precipitates a disastrous confrontation with Bride, and he abruptly exits her life with these six words: “‘You not the woman I want.’” Insecure, confused, and hurt, Bride doesn’t understand why she replied, “‘Neither am I.’”
As in many stories, coincidences are just that, events that happen concurrently without any causal connection. Perhaps it is coincidence that Booker meets Bride while he is adrift, still grieving the death of his older brother Adam. Perhaps it is coincidence that Bride meets Booker as she prepares to amend an injurious wrong. Perhaps, but Morrison isn’t merely writing about a coincidental meeting between the characters Bride and Booker. Instead, Morrison delivers much more than their superficial outlines, deliberate in her trenchant development of their inner consciousness and far-sighted in the difficult journeys they must take individually to heed their deficient insight and confront the imperatives of their love. Becoming aware of what makes them tick is a prerequisite to their being together, not in the lazy way God Help the Child begins, but in the consequential way it ends.
If Bride and Booker were to consummate a happy ending, much depends on their individual journeys between the time Booker pronounces those six gut-wrenching words, and Bride ultimately finds him sequestered in Whiskey, California, living in a trailer near his favorite aunt, Queen. If Bride and Booker would have looked in the mirror of clarity and truth, and thereby elucidated the problem between them, they could have used timely information rather than jagged assumptions to square things away. Unfortunately, their relationship lacks, in the beginning, a sufficient quality of truth and clarity, and it consequently comes to an abrupt end after six months of seeming bliss, only to founder on a reckless misunderstanding. It comes down to this: Bride confides in Booker, but she knows little or nothing about him. Booker doesn’t tell Bride his older brother Adam was raped and murdered when Booker was six years old. And Bride tells Booker that she accused Sofia Huxley, a twenty-year-old kindergarten teacher, of sexually abusing her young charges, but inexplicably omitting the fact that she lied on the witness stand so her mother would love her. Booker assumes Sofia is also a rapist and conflates Adam’s murder with Sofia’s alleged crime. They argue about what Booker calls Bride’s curious “affection” for Sofia, but what Bride calls her determination to right a wrong. Bride loses the argument, and Booker walks out. No reason. No explanation. Nothing.
If Bride had told him the night they argue that she had lied about Sofia, and if Booker had told her about Adam, could they have recognized they were looking in the same mirror? Booker once said to her, “No matter how hard we try to ignore it, the mind always knows truth and wants clarity.” In the heat of the argument with Bride, Booker doesn’t follow his own advice. There is no truth and no clarity the night he tells her, “‘You not the woman I want.’”
After Booker leaves, Bride remembers how she bared her soul to Booker, telling him about an incident that happened two years before she accused Sofia Huxley of sexual abuse. Had she conflated those two incidents, she wonders? When she was six years old, she heard what she thought was the pained meow of a cat and looked out her open window. Down below, she saw Mr. Leigh, the landlord, “leaning over the short, fat legs of a child between his hairy white thighs.” At the trial, perhaps she was pointing her finger at Mr. Leigh and accusing Sofia Huxley of the crime that Mr. Leigh had committed. She told Sweetness about the incident, and Sweetness scolded her never to speak of it again: “‘Don’t you say a word about it. Not to anybody, you hear me, Lula? Forget it. Not a single word.’” What lashed her even deeper were the words Mr. Leigh yelled at her, cutting her in two, just as the words she heard in school did: “Coon. Topsy. Clinkertop. Sambo. Ooga booga.” Thereafter, she “built up immunity so tough that not being a ‘nigger girl’ was all” she needed to win. Bride “became a deep dark beauty” and sold her “elegant blackness to all those childhood ghosts and now they pay” her for it.
The words “You not the woman I want” reverberate throughout God Help the Child. They act as a focal point around which much of the story revolves, and they foreshadow the journey ahead to get things right between Bride and Booker. Like most journeys—heroic or otherwise— theirs is not exempt from the conflict, fear, and self-doubt that co-exist with any passage that involves introspection. For Booker, he must resolve the self-imposed burden of Adam’s death. For Bride, she must rectify the lie she told about Sofia Huxley.
Bride’s path toward self-awareness takes her first to the Decagon Women’s Correctional Center in Norristown, California, where she follows Sofia Huxley on the day she is released from prison to a motel room where Bride gives her the present she has been saving up for years: “Five thousand dollars in cash” plus a “three- thousand-dollar Continental Airlines gift certificate” and “a promotional box of YOU, GIRL,” all enclosed in a Louis Vuitton gift bag. It doesn’t go well after Bride tells Sofia she is Lula Ann Bridewell. Sofia beats her up, smashing Bride’s jaw with her fist, punching her in the ribs, butting her head and leaving her half dead. Brooklyn, her friend, takes care of her after the beating and during her recovery. On the whole, Bride heals much better than she thought possible, although she needs plastic surgery “to hide eye scars, a broken nose and facial skin scraped down to the pink hypodermis.” During her recovery, Bride works at home while Brooklyn becomes manager at Sylvia, but she also has a lot of time to assess the disappearance of her boyfriend and her has-been life with him. Asking the foremost question on her mind, “Who the hell is he?” she looks through a duffel bag he’s left behind and finds it “stuffed with more books, one in German, two books of poetry, one by somebody named Hass and some paperback books by more writers” she’s never heard of. He has university degrees, she figures. His T-shirts bear their names.
How was she to know? She let him have his private life, “never probed, nagged or asked him about his past,” but not anymore. She is on a search to find any information that might reveal his whereabouts and any other mysteries about him. Besides the duffel bag, she also discovers a first-class letter addressed to Booker Starbern from a Salvatore Ponti, and inside an overdue invoice for sixty-eight dollars. Curious, she summarily calls a taxi to visit Ponti at his Pawn and Repair Palace. There she learns that Booker left his trumpet (she had no idea) and a forwarding address at Q. Olive, Whiskey, California—logging country. Bride pays the invoice, retrieves the trumpet, and makes plans to drive to Whiskey.
Her life is a shambles. Sofia Huxley beats her up; Brooklyn has taken over her job at Sylvia, Inc.; and her body is going through some kind of metamorphosis she doesn’t understand. She is scared: She has lost her pudenda and armpit hair, the holes for her pierced ears are altered, and she is growing thinner, as if she is disappearing. She fears she is changing into the little black girl called Lula Ann, “too weak, too scared to defy Sweetness, or the landlord, or Sofia Huxley.” She must find the courage to stand up for herself if she is to confront Booker on her own terms and tell him she deserves better treatment from him. Where is the respect?
Yet, it’s the hurt more than the anger that compels her to drive into unknown territory, a reckless act, with its logging camps and dirt roads, its Confederate flags hanging about. She has convinced herself, however, that she must take the risk “to locate the one person she once trusted, who made her feel safe, colonized somehow. Without him the world was more than confusing—shallow, cold, deliberately hostile. Like the atmosphere in her mother’s house where she never knew the right thing to do or say or remember what the rules were.”
As Bride drives east and north toward Whiskey, she turns onto Whiskey Road, and losing control of her Jaguar, she crashes into a tree. Fighting the air bag, her foot catching between the buckled door and the brake pedal, she lies in the darkness desperate and scared, in severe pain, waiting to be rescued. She feels “world-hurt—an awareness of malign forces changing her from a courageous adventurer into a fugitive.” When dawn arrives, a young girl with emerald eyes and milk-white skin watches her through the window, then leaves and returns with a man named Steve. He carries Bride to his house, “a warehouse-looking structure,” and, realizing she needs a doctor’s help, later drives her to the clinic in Whiskey where Dr. Muskie puts her broken ankle in a splint. Unable to walk, she spends six difficult and boring weeks in this hippie household, questioning how she will endure the “slop jar, outhouse toilet, metal washtub, broke-down scratchy couch for a month.”
Steve and his wife Evelyn care for her, taking her to the doctor, feeding her, getting her car fixed. For Bride, it’s “too hard, too strange for her to understand the kind of care they offered—free, without judgment or even a passing interest in who she was or where she was going.” Watching how they live—“gardening, cleaning, cooking, weaving, mowing grass, chopping wood, canning”—Bride can’t help but contrast this simple, seemingly happy life with her own muddled one. She questions the hunt for Booker: What if she can’t find him? What if he’s not there with Q. Olive? Feeling “scorned and rejected by everybody all her life,” she realizes she has to find Booker, and in doing so gain the inner strength that has evaded her so far in her life.
In this cobbled-together home in the woods, Bride experiences still more changes in her body. When her ankle is healed and she can bathe in a zinc tub rather than use a sponge, Bride has the shock of her life. She sees that “her chest is flat as a skateboard.” Having been so focused on her exotic beauty, Bride fears her body is betraying her. It’s bad enough that she has lost her pudenda and armpit hair, but Bride without breasts is no woman at all. She is “changing back into a little black girl” whose mother hated touching her. She “used to pray Sweetness would slap” her so she could feel her mother’s touch on her face. In this strange place in the woods, she senses the clock going backwards.
“It’s important to know that nothing is more important than our children. And if our children don’t think they are important to us, if they don’t think they are important to themselves, if they don’t think they are important to the world, it’s because we have not told them. We have not told them that they are our immortality.”
The theme of transformation plays a dual role in God Help the Child, interweaving both the physical and psychological constitution of Bride’s character. The “crazed transformation” Bride undergoes is not a figment of her imagination; it underlies her fear of regressing to that scared little black girl Sweetness wouldn’t touch. Like a childhood trauma that is never completely forgotten or undone, Bride believes that her shrunken breasts, her missing pudenda and armpit hair, her missing holes in her formerly pierced ears have much to do with that child. Although there have been no additional physical disappearances by the time she arrives in Whiskey—a dot on the map comprising a half dozen houses and some trailers and mobile homes—she has no answer for missing her menstrual period for two or three months. That Booker might have something to do with it doesn’t enter her mind. It is not ignorance or denial, however, but rather the entrenched fear that she is losing her body, her womanhood. Bride’s regression is a stubborn motif that recurs during Bride’s quest to discover what she is made of. Is it “cotton or steel”?
When Bride drives into Whiskey, two white children stare at her in “unblinking wonder,” fascinated by the black woman driving a Jaguar. Nonplussed, she remembers what Booker told her: Black skin is a color, a genetic trait, not a race. “‘Scientifically,’” he said, “‘there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice.’” Refusing to be deterred by the “stunned gaze of little white children,” and determined to confront Booker, she drives on to Q. Olive’s address (the Q. for Queen), whom she fears is her competition but relieved to find an older woman with red hair and earrings “the size of clamshells.” After informing Queen that she is looking for Booker Starbern, Queen tells her he’s nearby and not going anywhere. He’s laid up with a broken arm. Queen eyes Bride: “You look like something a raccoon found and refused to eat,” at once invalidating Bride’s obsession with her looks and deleting “an entire vocabulary of compliments in one stroke.”
Bride is treated like a queen in Queen’s home, a welcomed guest embraced by domestic richness as any she has ever seen: “Queen sewed, knitted, crocheted and made lace. Curtains, slipcovers, cushions, embroidered napkins” all “elegantly handmade.” A quilt on the headboard, small antiques oddly placed, a wall filled with photographs of children, a decorative seat cushion. Sitting together at the table set with “porcelain bowls on linen mats along with matching napkins and silver soup spoons with filigreed handles,” Queen offers Bride a thick soup for the starving guest, replete with the hospitality that only Queen knows how to provide: “Pieces of chicken floated among peas, potatoes, corn kernels, tomato, celery, green peppers, spinach and a scattering of pasta shells.” After the meal, Queen gets down to the business of Bride’s mission to Whiskey, quickly realizing that Bride knows little to nothing about Booker’s life. Queen enlightens Bride about Adam’s death and Booker’s estrangement from his family over a foundation in his brother’s name. Queen summarizes for Bride: “Adam’s death became his own life.”
Bride learns more about Booker in the very short time she spends with Queen than in the six months they were together. Queen lets Bride read the poetic prose writings Booker sent to her, in which Booker confesses his love for Bride and reveals a side of him she doesn’t know at all: “so get rid of those smokey dreams and lie on the beach in my arms while i cover you with white sands from shores you have never seen lapped by waters so crystal and blue they make you shed tears of bliss and let you know that you do belong finally to the planet you were born on and can now join the out-there world in the deep peace of a cello.” In these writings—six pages for each month they were together plus one more—Bride sees, as in an epiphany, that her looks, her beauty, have been like an insurance plan against a cruel world but have, instead, left her bereft of courage.
Queen tells Bride to go to Booker, but is it hard to imagine that Booker would greet her first thing with a command to get out of his trailer? Maybe not, but given what ensues between them raises the question: What does it take for two people to get their crap out of the way before they accept their love for each other? Bride and Booker are so suspicious of the other, their hurt so intense, that they fight physically before they resort to verbal contortions, moving ever closer to the truth and divulging the secrets each has left unsaid. Booker accuses Bride of sucking up to a monster, and Bride tells him she lied at Sofia Huxley’s trial so her mother would hold her hand and be proud of her. Booker retorts that his brother “was murdered by a freak, a predator, like the one” she, Bride, was forgiving. Bride, in turn, accuses Booker of blaming her for making amends to a woman whose life she ruined. Having promised that she will confront Booker and stand up for herself, even at the risk of further imperiling their relationship—whatever it is or will become—she tells him that he doesn’t have to love her but he has to respect her. Booker has no answer, and by the time he finds the words to answer Bride, she has fallen asleep, exhausted. Then his aunt arrives.
Queen, the wise old woman, the agent of change, awareness, insight, knowledge, and good judgment, carries on a quasi-Socratic dialogue with Booker, Bride sleeping soundly nearby, her legs splayed. Their dialogue goes like this:
Booker: Lies. Silence. Just not saying what was true or why.
Booker: About us as kids, things that happened, why we did things, thought things, took actions that were really about what went on when we were just children.
Queen: Adam for you?
Booker: Adam for me.
Queen: And for her?
Booker: A big lie she told when she was a kid that helped put an innocent woman in prison. A long sentence for child rape the woman never did. I walked out after we quarreled about Bride’s strange affection for the woman. At least it seemed strange at the time. I didn’t want to be anywhere near her after that.
. . .
Queen crossed her wrists and leaned on the table. “How long is he [Adam] going to run you?
Booker: I can’t help it, Queen.
Queen: No? She told her truth. What’s yours?
Booker can’t answer this question so Queen answers for him, telling him that Adam has to work day and night filling his living brother’s brain, getting “no rest because he has to run somebody’s else’s life.” After Queen leaves, Booker questions his obsession with his dead brother. Clinging to Adam, he thinks, is not redemption but “the illusion of control and the cheap seduction of power.” Perhaps it is time to give Adam the freedom to die, and time for him, Booker, to drop his own burden and cross—the one he gave Adam to carry.
The ending of God Help the Child closes with a death and a new life, the latter having been foreshadowed in Bride’s strange physical metamorphosis, the former in the annual ritual Queen executes—burning bedsprings to destroy bedbugs. Who would presume that this is the year an ember from the burning would start in her back yard, the fire would enter her house, Queen would succumb to smoke inhalation, Booker would perform CPR, Bride would pull off her T-shirt to extinguish the fire in Queen’s hair, and, of all things imaginable, reveal to all who look her “lovely, plump breasts”? Gleeful, she delays putting her shirt back on, just as Queen is slid into the ambulance and Bride’s flawless breasts have magically returned.
After Queen’s dies from a “hospital-borne virus”—not fire-related injuries—Bride waits in the car for Booker, as he throws his favorite aunt’s ashes in a stream. She rehearses what she presently knows to be true but has forestalled admitting to herself. Perhaps it’s her way to protect herself, but now that she sees a possible future with Booker, she is more secure, self-assured, at ease. In the car upon his return, she tells him in a clear voice, “‘I’m pregnant.’” Booker asks her to repeat what she just said. “‘You heard me,’” Bride answers. “‘I’m pregnant and it’s yours.’” After gazing at the river where he had thrown Queen’s ashes, Booker responds. “‘No,’” he tells her. “‘It’s ours.’”
The overarching theme of God Help the Child is not too difficult to discern. It is expressed in the title a well as in the last line of the novel: “Good luck and God help the child.” It is also explicit in a concession Sweetness makes: “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” The publishers describe the theme on the inner flap this way: “God Help the Child . . . weaves a tale about the way the sufferings of childhood can shape, and misshape, the life of the adult.”
Finally, in a speech that Toni Morrison gave at Howard University in 1995 she said: “It’s important to know that nothing is more important than our children. And if our children don’t think they are important to us, if they don’t think they are important to themselves, if they don’t think they are important to the world, it’s because we have not told them. We have not told them that they are our immortality.”
In the world Morrison creates in God Help the Child, the child has a singular presence. She and he are individuals acted upon by powerful forces beyond their control, and the consequences in this world are not pretty. Specifically, this is a world in which child abuse—physical, emotional, and sexual—is front-and-center. However disturbing it might be to read about child abuse and racism, God Help the Child is also about love and transformation. As in a fabric that has been meticulously crafted, Morrison interweaves the themes of love and transformation, audaciously rendering the journey of two lovers who transform a superficial six-month love affair into an avowed commitment of long-lasting love.