God Help
the Child

By Toni Morrison

Knopf. 178 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by Andrew Ervin


God help the book reviewer. Are there any remaining superlatives that have not been enthusiastically and aptly applied to Toni Morrison's body of work? She has written several undisputed masterpieces, including The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon. At least one of her books, Beloved, deserves the last say in any conversation about the Great American Novel. She has won the Pulitzer Prize and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle.

President Obama has presented Morrison with the highest award our nation can bestow upon a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has also picked up a nice piece of hardware from the people who decide the Nobel Prize. What is left to say about her writing or career?

Plenty, as it turns out. That's because at age 84 she continues to pen some of the most glorious and incendiary novels in the history of American letters. Her latest book, God Help the Child, packs a wallop.

The star of the show is a 23-year-old woman known as Bride, who continues to suffer from and relive some of her childhood traumas. When she was born, her dark, "crow-black with a blue tint" skin prevented Bride's mother from feeling affection for her and ultimately split up her family:

I always knew she didn't like touching me. I could tell. Distaste was all over her face when I was little and she had to bathe me. Rinse me, actually, after a halfhearted rub with a soapy washcloth. I used to pray she would slap my face or spank me just to feel her touch.

Her deep longing causes Bride - at this point, still known as Lula Ann - to falsely accuse a woman named Sofia of child abuse. In the present timeline of the novel, Sofia finally gets out of prison and Bride (as she is now named) is a hugely successful cosmetics manufacturer who attempts to make some financial reparations to ease her conscience. A love affair gone awry sparks a personal transformation, the nature of which I couldn't possibly spoil for you. Morrison's stories are way too smart for simplistic interpretations, but one obvious lesson is that the mistakes and evil deeds that happen early in life are not easily overcome.

Thanks in part to the deceptively simple prose style, many readers will find it tempting to look for allegory here. With that in mind, it's worth looking back for a moment to Morrison's 2008 novel A Mercy, which traced the roots of American racism to the late 17th century and beyond.

That title, A Mercy, reminded me of the poem "On Being Brought From Africa to America," by the former slave Phillis Wheatley. The first line still astounds me every time I read it: " 'Twas mercy that brought me from my Pagan land." For the speaker of Wheatley's poem, being enslaved was a small price to pay for ultimately being exposed to the glory of Christianity. It's a troubling and compelling idea, but it's also one - perhaps also found in God Help the Child - that affirms the presence of goodness in even the worst circumstances. Sometimes it takes divine forces to help us see it.

The awful legacy of slavery persists even now, every day, and in every American city and town. Just as aftershocks are often stronger and more devastating than an initial earthquake, the repercussions continue to scar our citizens and fill our prisons. God Help the Child demonstrates the often hideous ways the past can affect the here and now. Like Phillis Wheatley, Morrison possesses enough generosity of spirit to see a few glimmering moments of genuine hope amid the ruin, along with the intellectual heft needed to understand their context, and the graciousness to share them with us.

AUTHOR EVENT

Toni Morrison, "God Help the Child"

7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.

Tickets: $15, $7 students.

Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authoreventsEndText

Andrew Ervin's debut novel, "Burning Down George Orwell's House," will be published in May. He lives in Manayunk.