Author Toni Morrison in 2012
PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/GettyImages

Toni Morrison is, inarguably, the greatest living writer of our time. She has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also the last American to have won the Nobel Prize. Her books have been canonized as classics and taught in schools from elementary to graduate levels. Now, in her latest novel, Morrison turns her considerable talents to the defense of that most vulnerable population: children.

“What you do to children matters,” writes Morrison some time into this latest book, God Help the Child. “And they might never forget.” Such is the central theme of Morrison’s 11th novel, an exploration of the ways that children are hurt by society and how little their pain is valued.

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God Help the Child is told in alternating points of view, anchored primarily by Bride, the main character, who is scarred by the emotional abuse of her mother—and the one, terrible act that Bride committed against someone else to try to earn her mother’s love.

Here, too, is Sweetness, Bride’s mother, a very light-skinned black woman whose life is thrown into upheaval with Bride’s birth; Bride’s ink-black skin is something that Sweetness cannot love. Nor can Sweetness’ husband, Bride’s father, who promptly accuses Sweetness of infidelity and abandons the family. Sweetness, left to raise Bride on her own, justifies her abuse of Bride as an attempt to instill some survival skills in her daughter so that she can withstand the cruel racism of the world.

“I once saw a girl nowhere near as dark,” explains Sweetness, “who couldn’t be more than ten years old tripped by one of a group of white boys and when she fell and tried to scramble up, another one put his foot on her behind and knocked her flat again.”

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Now all grown up, Bride has found a successful career and true love in Booker, who, unknown to Bride, is haunted by the childhood abduction and murder of his brother Adam by a serial child molester. Unable to deal with these memories, he suddenly abandons Bride when she attempts to make peace with a dark figure from her own past who is newly released from prison.

Bride follows after Booker to his last known address, determined to get some answers. But barely having begun her quest, Bride runs her car into a tree and is forced to heal her broken leg in the home of two hippie farmers named Evelyn and Steve and their adopted daughter, Rain.

Rain is named after the rain that poured down from the sky on the day Steve and Evelyn found her. The girl—thrown out by her mother because she would no longer let herself be raped by the men her mother purposely brought home to molest Rain in exchange for money—had been living on the streets, foraging for food and shelter. Bride, overwhelmed by the sadness of the girl’s story, risks her life to save Rain from being hurt by more men yet again, before recovering fully from her broken leg and continuing her quest to find Booker.

But something strange is happening to Bride’s body: It is reverting to girlhood. Parts of her go missing. First her hair, then the piercings in her ears, then her breasts. It is as if Bride is literally turning into the “scared little girl” she used to be when she sought her mother’s help to escape their sexually predatory landlord and her mother refused to do anything about it. But when Bride finds Booker and they air their individual truths to each other and let go of the pain, Bride’s body returns.

It is a beautiful thing to watch Morrison move characters through the full range of human emotion and into cathartic transformation. Here, Morrison shows us the importance of not holding on to what needs to be put down; the necessity of forgiveness, the necessity of beginning again.

It is impossible to read God Help the Child without feeling the bittersweet understanding that this may be one of the last texts the 84-year-old Morrison gives us to read. So here, in the figure of the unwanted, abused black girl, are echoes of Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye. Here, too, in the naming of characters as well as in the elements of magical realism, is an homage to Morrison’s Nobel Prize-winning work, Beloved.

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The metaphors, as is usual with Morrison, sing. And we have Morrison’s customary layers of insightful details to build a complex, resonant world. But we see, more than in any of her past books, a meeting of Morrison as writer and Morrison as mother in the figure of Queen, Booker’s aunt. Writes Morrison:

Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow—some long-ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning and dismissing its origin. What waste. She knew from personal experience how hard loving was, how selfish and how easily sundered. Withholding sex or relying on it, ignoring children or devouring them, rerouting true feelings or locking them out. Youth being the excuse for that fortune-cookie love—until it wasn’t, until it became pure adult stupidity.

It is as if Morrison, rather than her character, is speaking directly to us, from her lived wisdom of having mothered two black children into manhood, to provide a light for our future progress—if we will listen. For in God Help the Child, we are witnesses to a great mind reckoning with one of the saddest aspects of humanity. Why do adults hurt children? Why do we, as a society, stand back and let it happen, ignoring our responsibility to do something, anything, to help these most precious little lives? And what can we do to help, if we choose to care?

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Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.