Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Baby of the Family traces Lena McPherson’s development from birth to young womanhood as she copes with the supernatural experiences that are the result of her having been born with a caul (a fetal membrane) covering her head. In the African American folk tradition, the caul is associated with special powers of vision such as foresight and the ability to see spirits, and Lena’s powers are seen as a “gift.” Lena experiences some aspects of her special status as a burden rather than a gift, however, and throughout the novel she struggles to balance her position as the coddled youngest child and only daughter of a well-to-do African American family with her gift’s darker aspects, which allow her contact with the spirit world that she doesn’t always understand. Lena’s struggle is made more difficult by the fact that her mother, by embracing the “modern” and rejecting the folkways of the rural community, has deprived Lena of useful folk knowledge and protection.
Though Lena feels a distinct sense of alienation because of her extraordinary sensitivities, she nonetheless remains closely connected to the community from which she springs, and she has several significant friendships that help move her toward full self-awareness and self-acceptance. First among these significant friendships is her relationship with a neighborhood girl, Sarah. Sarah serves largely as a traditional literary foil; she is the opposite of Lena in almost every...
(The entire section is 618 words.)
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