Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place. New York: Viking Press, 1982. Penguin, 1983.
By Trudier Harris
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1984, pp. 12-13
Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place is a volume destined for long life. A collection of nine sections which together form a unified whole, the volume is powerful and strikingly well written. It captures the pain, suffering and futile attempts at happiness of a group of black women transplanted to a northern city’s deadend street known as Brewster Place.
Most of the women in Brewster Place have their origins in the South. Mattie Michael, who is the center of the first section, was born and raised in Tennessee. Sheltered by a father who witnessed the birth of his only child late in his life, Mattie is suddenly tumbled by Butch Fuller, the local dandy, into the mire of humanity. The pregnancy that results from Mattie’s one sexual encounter with Butch causes her to be thrown out of her father’s house. In order to save her father from the murder she knows he will commit she refuses to name Butch. Instead, she moves to Asheville, North Carolina to live with her friend Etta Johnson until the baby is born. Although Etta moves on rather quickly after the birth, Mattie’s “temporary” stay ends more than thirty years later when her own sheltered son skips bail instead of facing an assault charge, causing Mattie to lose the house she has put up to ensure his court appearance.
Mattie’s tale forms the backdrop against which the lives of several of the women of Brewster Place are to be viewed. She moves into Brewster Place upon her son’s abrupt and permanent departure. Mattie’s loss enables her to listen sympathetically to the tales of despair she hears and to understand the pain she witnesses. She manages to rein in her own pain consistently enough to offer guidance and comfort to others.
Mattie has an expansiveness of human feeling which allows her to watch patiently as Etta, also in her fifties, chases the ever illusionary dream of marriage to a respectable man. Etta has spent her life in “business opportunities” with men but Mattie knows that she is fast using up her assets. A minister picked for the husband role consents only to be her gigolo, forcing Etta to see that the only love and caring she is likely to experience will come from Mattie.
Other women on Brewster Place, are not so directly tied to Mattie. One, Cora Lee, fell in love so desperately with dolls as a child that she began to produce “real babies” as soon as she discovered where they came from. Another resident, Kiswana Browne, is a middle-class militant who has moved across town from “Linden Hills” to help unfortunate black brothers and sisters on Brewster Place. Saved from anachronism only by her commitment, Kiswana tries to form the residents of Brewster Place into a tenants union; they plan to fight in court for the many improvements the complex needs. In her commitment, Kiswana is just the opposite of the two young women who are the focus of “The Two.” Lesbian in a place which is hostile to their relationship, their different coping strategies illustrate how truly isolated they are; Theresa compensates by pretending not to care about the opinions of the neighbors, while Lorraine is driven to seek approval.
In one of the book’s most painful and disturbing scenes, Lorraine is raped repeatedly by the young black toughs of the neighborhood who have no place for a “dyke.” Pushed into insanity and retaliation by the rape, Lorraine commits murder.
Naylor’s heart-wrenching account of Lorraine has a counterpart in the tale of Lucielia Louise Turner, the granddaughter of Etta Johnson, the woman who had befriended Mattie after birth of her child. Ciel finds herself on Brewster Place in a common-law marriage with Eugene, for whom she has an abortion when he asserts that all she is good for is “babies and bills.” Several months later, when Eugene declares that he is leaving, Ciel’s claim that she loves him evokes, “that ain’t good enough.” While the two are fighting, their five-year old firstborn child, playing in
another room, electrocutes herself by sticking a fork into an outlet. In the face of the rejection she believes God has shown her, Ciel determines to starve herself.
The pain, numbness, and death-in-life that define Ciel after her child’s funeral are relieved only when Mattie takes her into her arms and rocks the damned-up suffering into expression. That scene is a combination of conversion, renewal, and rebirth in which Mattie serves as preacher, guide, and sustainer. Indeed, Naylor’s description of Mattie’s role evokes that of Jesus in James Weldon Johnson’s “Go Down, Death: A Funeral Sermon,” and it can be compared to the change Avey Johnson experiences on the Caribbean island in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow. Yet, in the writing and in the power of the passage, Naylor’s voice is distinctively unique.
Ciel moaned. Mattie rocked. Propelled by the sound, Mattie rocked her out of that bed, out of that room, into a blue vastness just underneath the sun and above time. She rocked her over Aegean seas so clean they shone like crystal, so clear the fresh blood of sacrificed babies torn from their mother’s arms and given to Neptune could be seen like pink froth on the water. She rocked her on and on, past Dachau, where soul-gutted Jewish mothers swept their children ‘s entrails off laboratory floors. They flew past the spilled brains of Senegales infants whose mothers had dashed them on the wooden sides of slave ships. And she rocked on.
She rocked her into her childhood and let her see murdered dreams. And she rocked her back, back into the womb, to the nadir of her hurt, and they found it–a slight silver splinter, enbedded just below the surface of the skin. And Mattie rocked and pulled–and the splinter gave way, but its roots were deep, gigantic, ragged, and they tore up flesh with bits of fat muscle tissue clinging to them. They left a huge hole, which was already starting to pus over, but Mattie was satisfied. It would heal.
Naylor’s presentations of human emotions ring so true that we sing our “Amens” from the knots in our stomachs or the tears in our eyes. There is verisimiltude in characters who are in their twenties as well as those who are in their fifties and older. In one scene between Kiswana Browne and her mother, who insists upon calling her newly remained daughter Melanie, Naylor astutely presents the clash of generations and the games parents and children knowingly play. In this instance, neither mother nor daughter win out; instead, both realize that they can learn from, and must allow respect for, each other.
Throughout, Naylor maintains a narrative style suffused with images that cause us to pause. She writes of the boys who attack Lorraine: “When they stood with their black skin, ninth-grade diplomas, and fifty-word vocabularies in front of the mirror that the world had erected and saw nothing, those other pairs of tight jeans, suede sneakers, and tinted sunglasses imaged nearby proved that they were alive”, and of the possible death of Brewster Place: “No one cries when a street dies. There’s no line of mourners to walk behind the coffin wheeled on the axis of the earth and ridded by the sky.”
But Brewster Place is not dying. Women like Mattie resist its demise as spiritedly as the images used to describe it. It is a testament to Naylor’s large talent that, in this her first novel, she handles the task so well.
Trudier Harris teaches literature and folklore in the English Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.