Kit’s Crit: God Help The Child (Toni Morrison)

Morrison

Photo: Kit Perriman

I have long suspected that Toni Morrison’s novels can be paired, each one offering a different insight into a familiar (often harrowing) situation.  Her latest book, God Help the Child (New York: Knopf, 2015) is no exception.  Indeed, it makes a splendid companion to her first publication The Bluest Eye, as both stories focus on the aftereffects of childhood trauma, using a variety of narrative devices and a sprinkling of magical realism.

The Bluest Eye (1970) shows a young black girl’s descent into madness as a result of her ethnic inferiority complex and her father’s sexual abuse.  Pecola is destroyed by her circumstances.  In God Help the Child, however, the blue-black Bride is rejected by her high-yellow parents, and harshly treated by a mother trying to prepare her for the skin privileges in racist America.  But instead of being crushed, Bride not only survives with great dignity, she turns her blackness into a hot commodity and becomes a successful cosmetics mogul.

But Bride feels guilty about a lie she told as an eight-year-old child that sent an innocent woman to jail.  When the woman is released she tries to make amends, and at that point her carefully-shaped life begins to melt away.  She confesses her perjury to her lover, a jazz musician called Booker, who promptly declares, “You not the woman I want”(8).  This sends Bride into a form of arrested development where her body slowly shrinks back to its childhood state, still craving forgiveness and acceptance.  And only when she has gone on a quest — been reunited with Booker — and he cries, “I love you! Love you!”(164) does she start to become whole again.

Bride has “something witchy” about her eyes (6), a clue to the fact this is a modern fairy tale.  Like The Ugly Duckling, she grows from being a unattractive reject into a stunning success, and the dark child who lied and ruined an innocent life transforms into a beautiful goddess from the warmth of human love.

Like all of Morrison’s books, God Help the Child is full of poetic language, though in this sparse novella there is transcendence and a positive resolution. While not as complex as Paradise, or as poignant as Beloved, I enjoyed the story and the resilience it portrays.  Childhood trauma warps and shapes the adult life – but it can be overcome!

Pure magic.

Kit’s Crit: Daughters of the Witching Hill (Mary Sharratt)

Sarratt

It is impossible to know what really happened before and during the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 when the only extant document is the blatantly biased trial record, written by a clerk called Thomas Potts to gain favor with King James 1st.  Mary Sharratt, however, makes an excellent attempt at fleshing out a plausible tale around the two central characters — a local cunning woman known as Mother Demdike (Bess Southerns), and her pretty teenage granddaughter (Alizon Device).  Sharratt’s cunning folk are Catholic herbalists and fortune-tellers, doing whatever they can to survive in remote, harsh Lancashire.

Daughters of the Witching Hill (Mariner Books, 2011) is more a historical fiction than a thriller.  It offers a sympathetic portrayal of marginalized females battling against the patriarchy.  Sharratt has a good grasp of the local superstitions, traditions, religious conflict, and public ignorance of the period, and the Demdike clan emerge as a group of strong women, bonded by circumstance and sustained with love.  Most interesting is Sharratt’s invented seventeenth-century Lancashire dialect: “I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squint-eye, and with my granddaughter, Alizon . . . .”

 As is necessary in any saga as complex as the Lancashire Witches, Sharratt takes some “fictional liberties” by combining several real people into one composite character, and changing some of the repetitive historical names for the sake of clarity.  She also suggests that Demdike taught another rival cunning woman her craft (Mother Chattox); that Mistress Alice Nutter was a secret practicing Catholic; and that Justice Roger Nowell derived some personal (perhaps sexual) satisfaction from his dealing with the so-called witches.  These are all credible assumptions.

Less likely, is her portrayal of Demdike’s daughter Elizabeth Device (known locally as “Squinting Lizzie”).  In Daughters of the Witching Hill Lizzie has no interest in her mother’s magic.  She appears as a chaste lonely widow who follows the new religion because she is infatuated with a Church Warden called Richard Baldwin.  He impregnates her with a third child, Jennet Device.  Yet while this provides a romantic interlude in the harrowing proceedings, I strongly suspect the Demdike home was called Malkin Tower because malkin meant “sluttish woman” (OED) and  Squinting Lizzie may well have been one of the local prostitutes!

Sharratt, however, has every right to fill in the gaps of this ambiguous story with her own interpretation, and her sympathetic version of events certainly makes an intriguing read.  A highly-recommended novel.

Kit’s Crit: Interregnum (Geraldine Monk)

Monk

Geraldine Monk’s Interregnum is a collection of experimental poems based on the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612.  The title refers to a gap or pause in history where the social order shifts.  In this collection, nine-year-old Jennet Device represents such a metamorphosis on several different levels.  She is the downtrodden, exploited child – a female in the lowest patriarchal position – and is closely aligned with the animal kingdom.  But she also becomes an instrument of change.

 As the folklorist John Roby shrewdly observed, “Witchcraft and kingcraft both came in with the Stuarts and went out with them.”  Twenty-two years after the first Lancashire Witch Trials, another group of Pendle folk were sent to the assizes, found guilty, but eventually received a royal pardon from Charles 1st who was not as superstitious as his father, King James.  Jennet Device is thought to have been among the accused – “Babyface on the chopping block” (Monk) – but the times were finally changing.

This anthology is strange and penetrating.  It pushes against traditional language, exploring a stark landscape where everything struggles to survive against poverty, prejudice, and oppression.  Resistance is inscribed on the body in scabs and scars.  But there is a freedom in the natural world that can liberate even the weariest spirit.

Monk explores the importance of what happened on the slopes of Pendle Hill – past and present – questioning to what extent history can impact the future.  She ultimately concludes that although we cannot live the lives of others – nor escape “Words birthed.  Made flesh.  Took wing.  Horrids and / enormaties” – we can strive to be less ignorant and more compassionate.

If you like challenging poetry that is felt and processed in gut before being savored in the mind, you will probably enjoy Interregnum.

Kit’s Crit: A Mercy (Toni Morrison)

A Mercy

In many ways Toni Morrison’s witchcraft novel A Mercy (New York: Knopf, 2008) is a precursor to her masterpiece, Beloved.  It is hailed for its insights into human relationships – particularly family, motherhood, and sisterhood – but it is also an exploration of fear and persecution.  The clue to this lies in the opening sentence, “Don’t be afraid.”

Set in the 1680s,The Europeans are colonizing America.  Jacob Vaark (an Anglo-Dutch trader) takes 16 year-old Florens (a black slave girl) in part-payment for a bad debt.  Florens was born in America (the start of the coming race) to an African woman and Portuguese plantation owner, and is offered alongside her mother.  The mother, however, persuades Vaark to leave her behind because she is still nursing a son, believing that her 8-year-old daughter will have a better life away from their cruel master.  Throughout the rest of the novel Florens struggles to understand why her mother gave her away.  The drama peaks when the new plantation owners contract smallpox.  If they both die, the slaves will be at the mercy of any man who comes along.  Florens is sent on a mission to save the plantation.

There are many clues suggesting that the settlers are trying to create a new Eden, but instead end up experiencing Paradise Lost.  They live near the town of Milton.  Vaark has twin serpents wrought into his copper gates.  Bur the evil is already in the garden, waiting to poison the American Dream.

Two major themes are sisterhood and motherhood in a world controlled by men.  Do women support or undermine each other?  Is abandonment, death, or separation the only way to save an African American child from slavery?  Morrison’s novel explores the essence of slavery – the way education leads to personal power, freedom, and autonomy – and how human beings crave community, creating their own “families” when blood relatives are not available.  She suggests that mercy is the one crucial gift we can give to each other in times of need.

Morrison’s high literary style will not appeal to everyone.  And some readers have expressed disappointment with the lack of obvious plot development.  I, however, believe she weaves together a quilt of individual tales to create a beautifully lyrical introduction to the Salem Witch Trials.  A Mercy highlights the irony of settlers arriving to the New World in search of religious freedom, only to destroy the indigenous population and enslave millions of Africans.  Not only that, they brought their own prejudices with them, which finally resulted in the witch hunts.  It can be no coincidence that Florens – seen as a witch by Northerners at the start of the persecutions – features in a novel called A Mercy.  She functions as an early version of Mercy Lewis – the historical servant who played a crucial role in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Kit’s Crit: Like Water For Chocolate (Laura Esquivel)

Chocolate

Like Water For Chocolate (New York: Doubleday,1992) is a strange debut novel written in the magical-realism tradition.  The title comes from “an extremity of feeling” – perhaps sexual desire – where intense emotion melts the human heart, mind, or soul, just as boiling water melts chocolate.

Esquivel explores the impact of old Mexican traditions within modern culture, examining the filial responsibilities of a child to its parents, gender issues, personal sacrifice for the greater good, and the role of food as a metaphor for human feelings.

While I like the original premise that recipes contain secrets and can change with the fluctuating moods of the cook, this is not a book I would read more than once because the breaks from reality, sequencing, and characterizations sometimes make the tale a little too hard to swallow!

Kit’s Crit: Illuminations (Mary Sharratt)

Sharratt

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, the famous German Benedictine Abbess who lived from 1098-1179.  Hildegard’s genuine mystical prophecies earned her the name, the Sibyl of the Rhine. 

Given to the church at the tender age of 8, Hildegard was entombed in a tiny room with a radical anchorite called Jutta von Sponheim, and here she grew into a great thinker who had a strong impact on the early Catholic Church.  She also became a gifted composer and artist, and was able to heal the local population with herbal medicines and gemstones.  Her God was a feminine version of love.

Hildegard began experiencing visions at the age of 3, and eventually began recording them in a brilliantly illuminated manuscript.  But were these images sent from God or from Satan?  Fortunately she was able to convince those around her that her mysticism was a holy gift.  And as she lay dying her sister nuns claimed to see two streams of light in the sky crossing over her room – a sign they interpreted as a heavenly blessing.

Illuminations is an absorbing story about a fascinating woman who bravely took on the medieval patriarchy to create a safe community for religious women.  The book is well-written, filling the gaps in history with plausible suggestions that help explain why certain characters acted as they did.  Although Sharratt is aware that if Hildegard had lived at a later time in Puritan England she might well have been accused of witchcraft (http://marysharratt.blogspot.com/2012/07/of-witches-and-saints-mother-demdike.html), Illuminations maintains a firm focus on the mystic’s religious calling, and does not undermine her venerable status within the church.  A very good read!

Kit’s Crit: The Dovekeepers (Alice Hoffman)

Dovekeepers

The Dovekeepers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011) tells the tragic story of the Siege at Masada in70 CE, when 900 Jews were trapped on a mountain in the Judean desert surrounded by an army of hostile Roman soldiers.  After many months of resistance the rebels chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender themselves into slavery.  Only 2 women and 5 children survived.  They gave their testimony to a scholar named Flavius Josephus.  Alice Hoffman then turned their extant accounts into this epic historical fiction.

The Dovekeepers follows the lives of four women: Yael, the daughter of an assassin; Revka, a baker’s wife who lost her daughter in a brutal Roman attack; Aziza, who was raised as a male warrior; and Shirah, “The Witch of Moab.”  These four women arrive at Masada on very different paths yet they all become dove keepers at the fortress.  Shirah and Yael survive the final massacre.

Hoffman’s lengthy book is vivid and powerful, with a dramatic mix of magic and Judaism that some readers may find offensive.  And some of the supernatural elements, like the cloak of invisibility, stretch the bounds of belief.  Nevertheless, the book resonates with the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and is a wonderful reminder of courage, sacrifice, and fortitude.

I found Shirah the most compelling character.  She is an Alexandrian wise woman with uncanny insight, gifted in magic and medicine.  Shirah was trained by an Egyptian priestess and passes on some of her skills to Yael.  Her bravery helps the few survivors to escape through their underground cave system – the final proof of her resilience, adaptability, and cunning powers.

The Dovekeepers is a great Book Club selection, generating a lot of insightful discussion.  But its length and density makes it more demanding than some other popular choices.