As we near the end of 2017, our country continues to be embroiled in this year’s sexual harassment scandals from “How stupid could he have been to grope the air in front of a sleeping woman’s breasts?” to “How can a pedophile run for office and almost be elected to the US Senate?” The good news is that we are engaged in a long overdue dialogue about this subject.
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison plunges into a topic we haven’t discussed as a country: How sexual abuse of children affects them for the rest of their lives. This topic might be an even more volatile and difficult subject to engage as a nation. Perhaps story can show us the way to begin this most difficult discussion. God Help the Child is such a starting point. Through language and storytelling, Ms. Morrison asks the reader to look with courage and non-judgment at the subject of children’s sexual abuse. My understanding and compassion for the victims of sexual abuse is greater today than it was yesterday because of the honest, and oftentimes, brutal shining of the light by Ms. Morrison’s pen into the darkest recesses of our society.
As a writer, I’m fascinated how great, or even good writing works. And as a reader, I am thrilled when I read great writing. During the past two years, I have read three books by Ms. Morrison: Sula (1973), A Mercy (2008) and God Help the Child (2015). God Help the Child is by far my favorite book from this award-winning author. While I was reading this book I understood why Ms. Morrison is so revered as a writer and why she received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Perhaps story can show us the way to begin this most difficult discussion. God Help the Child is such a starting point.
Many authors repeat their comfortable and proven formula, and keep on writing the same old stuff because it works, or so it is assumed that it works. Ms. Morrison is one of the rarities. Her approach to structure may seem like a formula, but how she weaves the characters’ stories within the structure, how she uses language to create magic on the page, how she reveals the truths hidden within the characters’ inner lives—these truths that mirror some of our hidden truths go beyond manipulated formula. Her words and images, metaphors and themes push and pull us into the magic of great storytelling.
What impresses me most about the storytelling and the writing of God Help the Child is how carefully Ms. Morrison chooses when to reveal what needs to be revealed so we can begin to understand the inner motivation of the characters’ journeys. And yet, I wonder if the story and the characters chose not only when to reveal, but also what to reveal so the reader would be most impacted and moved emotionally. At first, I thought the sudden burst of the “Oh my!” reveals were carefully crafted by the author. But as I pondered how and why the characters landed in such precarious places and dire situations, how they seemed to grow more and more despondent, became more and more erratic, sometimes cruel to themselves, sometimes vicious to another, other times so incredibly vulnerable that I almost cried, I began to sense the innate power of the story, which had more to do with these phenomena than the brilliance of the author. In other words, I sensed that it is the story that chooses when to reveal the truth and not the intellect and craftsmanship of the author. And this excited me!
I won’t state specifics of the characters’ journeys or the plot points, for I sense if you know too much before you read the novel that knowledge would spoil the mystery and magic contained within the unraveling of the characters’ inner lives, and how this unraveling pushes them toward redemption, and the possibility of hope. If I give away too much and tell the reasons for the broken bones, the smashed and cut faces, the creeping, unstoppable power of Nature, you might not experience the beauty and magnitude of Ms. Morrison’s storytelling. Having said that, the act of giving away too much is one of the biggest fears running though the characters’ lives. The giving away what should never be given away is yet another fear that drives the characters because if they give away too much, then maybe—just maybe—the shame and guilt and remorse they live with might—just might—not be so painful, and then maybe—just maybe—they might be in control of what they say, and what they do, of whom they love and who loves them.
And I question: What do these fears have in common with the discourse of our time?