Daughters is a rich and powerful novel, carefully conceived and craftily constructed around a set of tensions that connect the worlds of Triunion, a fictional Caribbean island- nation, and New York City in the person of Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie. In the opening pages, Ursa Mackenzie leaves a New York City clinic feeling guilty about having had an abortion. Her abortion becomes a metaphor for a host of failed dreams and ruined lives, a legacy of slavery, colonialism, and racism in the Americas. Daughters, Paule Marshall’s fourth novel, examines the role in the New World of black women, who must, because of the pernicious and lasting effects of slavery, racism, and sexism, find the courage and resourcefulness to act alone. Whether West Indian or New York African American, black women must lead the struggle to be free and whole.
Ursa is the daughter of Estelle Harrison of Hartford, Connecticut, herself the daughter of Tennessee parents who had fled north. Ursa’s father is Primus Mackenzie, born into an ascendant class of West Indian blacks and destined to lead his people. Sent away from his village home to attend school at age eight, Primus learns European ways, English ways, as the road to power. Later, as a rising young lawyer in Triunion, he is brought by the Carnegie Endowment on International Relations to the United States to “see how it was done.” He falls in love with Estelle, a grade-school teacher and a member of a hospitality committee.
From her first exposure to Triunion, Estelle is fascinated by Congo Jane and her consort Will Cudjoe, who are immortalized in a heroic group sculpture called the National Monument. After Ursa’s birth, Estelle often takes Ursa to the monument, puts the child on her shoulders, and lifts her up toward the two “warrior-lovers.” Marshall connects the leadership of the black woman, the necessity of struggle, and the figures of Ursa and Estelle. Later, when Ursa’s professor at “Mt. H.” college rejects her senior thesis proposal to study the forces of connection and community between black men and women as represented by Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe, it becomes clear that the struggle continues. When Ursa returns to Triunion for the climax of the novel, she takes a flying tumble off “Little Gran’ Morne,” a twelve-foot-high rockpile that the children had always called “the Monument,” an echo of the name of the National Monument to Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe. Ursa’s fall that morning suggests a loss of innocence about her father and her obligation as an adult to do what is necessary to preserve the Government Lands, a publicly owned area, for the people of Triunion and not to let the land be perverted into a monument of another kind, one to North American and colonial greed and exploitation.
Nearly forty years earlier, in 1943, Estelle spends her honeymoon with Primus on the campaign trail as he seeks a seat in the Triunion parliament. On their way back home, their car breaks down after dark; Estelle looks for a flashlight, hoping the problem is “something we can fix.” Primus laughs, claims that “I don’t even know how to open the bonnet on this thing,” and sends a small boy running down the mountain in the dark to fetch help. At dawn, Primus has the boy’s mother bring coffee to them. Estelle has a flash of insight into Primus’ character but postpones pursuing it. It will be, it turns out, her daughter who will confront him.
Primus Mackenzie’s early dream was to make a “model village for all these people you see scattered about on these hills or into a cooperative farm, or both” or to establish a cannery in Government Lands; his plans, however, are transformed by time and disillusion into a scheme—in which he himself invests—to create a resort for rich North Americans to play in, destroying access to and use of the lands and beaches by the people in the process. Primus has sold out to the “hangmen who run the government” and allowed his better dreams to be deflected and defeated. Although Ursa, Primus’ only child, reveals the resort scheme to his constituents and causes his defeat. Marshall suggests that Ursa’s violation of the values of family loyalty is justified by the higher calling of loyalty to the community. Part of Primus’ problem, Marshall suggests, is that he has no real vision of his own but instead aspires to remake Triunion after the U.S. pattern; the seductive visions of colonialism obscure the power and potential of his own culture. This problem is shared by other black men, whether executives such as Lowell Carruthers, with whom Ursa has a lengthy affair, or Sandy Lawson, who had shown promise as a New Jersey political leader. Although angry at neocolonial domination and seeing themselves as “always running after white folk with the long hand out,” they lack the power to fight off that domination.
The women, however, do not. In different ways, each of the memorable women who act in important supporting roles develops and wields the power to battle against such oppression. Celestine Marie-Claire Bellegarde, a French Creole, is one of “Mis- Mack’s” “doormouth” children, whom she takes in and who, because of her intelligence and loyalty, becomes housekeeper and family retainer, continuing to wait on Primus even after he is married, her loyalty to him unbending. Astral Forde, an ambitious country woman, becomes Primus’ long-term mistress; loyal and intelligent, she and Ursa bond in a powerful scene after Mackenzie’s defeat, Viney, Ursa’s New York City friend, is a determined single mother, and Mae Ryland is...
(The entire section is 2288 words.)