The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
As the title suggests, Naylor’s novel is about a community of women. Naylor writes of them, “Brewster Place became especially fond of its colored daughters as they milled like determined spirits among its decay, trying to make it a home.” Although the undisputed leader of this community is Mattie, the women are presented as sisters who mentor, nurture, guide, and heal one another. With the exceptions of Kiswana and “the two,” the women are refugees from the South, women for whom Brewster Place is both a literal and a figurative dead end.
Mattie holds the community and the novel together. Hers is the first story, and her dream concludes the novel. In her story, she is impregnated by Butch, beaten by her father, and betrayed by a son she had spoiled. What she learned from Eva, her mentor and benefactor, sustains her when she loses her home and moves to Brewster Place. Naylor likens her situation to that of her plants: “All the beautiful plants that once had an entire sun porch for themselves in the home she had exchanged thirty years of her life to pay for would now have to fight for life on a crowded windowsill.” Rather than feeling self-pity, Mattie fights for life but also aids the other women in Brewster Place.
She heals Etta, but her most significant act involves Lucielia, who seems determined to die after her baby’s death. Mattie rocks her as a mother rocks a child, but the rocking transcends physical movement. It becomes a...
(The entire section is 599 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Mattie Michael, a strong, elderly, unmarried black woman who reared a son before moving to Brewster Place. Mattie is the pivotal character in the novel. It is her own personal tragedies—her father’s shame and rejection when he learns that she is pregnant; the loss of her son, Basil, whom she loves dearly; the loss of her worldly possessions—that make her sensitive to the tragedies of others. She is the character who breathes life and hope into the dismal atmosphere of Brewster Place. At the end of the novel, Mattie is the first to begin tearing down the wall that makes Brewster Place a literal and figurative dead end for its residents. In their symbolic protest and rage, she and the other women in the community join together to fight their condition instead of being ruled by it.
Etta Mae Johnson
Etta Mae Johnson, Mattie’s closest friend, an attractive woman who carries herself with pride. In Rock Vale, the town in which Mattie and Etta grew up, there was no place for a woman with Etta’s rebellious, independent spirit. She refused to play by society’s rules and spent most of her life moving to one major city after another, from one promising black man to another, in the hope that one of them would take care of her. Upon her return to Brewster Place, Etta learns that her friend Mattie can give her what she is searching for, things that no man has ever given her: love, comfort, and friendship....
(The entire section is 852 words.)
In her interview with Loris, Naylor says that her work presents "a community of people who are both saints and sinners, who have beauty and blemishes. I don't glorify the African American and say we're all perfect. We are all human beings and that means complexity, that means light and shadow." Her characters are emphatically not perfect, but she makes each realistic and appealing in his or her imperfection. The depiction of Mattie as a young woman, largely obedient but rebellious and stubborn over things that mattered to her, makes the Mattie who spoils her child more understandable. Sadly, Mattie's strength and love does not humanize Basil, but causes him to be shiftless, selfish, and weak. However, in her mature years on Brewster Place, Mattie has become a calm, unifying force. Having disregarded most of Eva's advice about raising a child, she has lived and learned. And as she gives understated advice to Etta, Ciel, and Cora, she fully expects them to ignore and go their own way, which they do. At the same time, Mattie's very presence becomes their inspiration; she has gone through very difficult times of her own and survived. "Mattie Michael" figures as Naylor's exemplum for black women; she has lost everything and lives on, rebuilding her life, finding love and joy.
Mattie's self-reliance contrasts sharply with Etta, who relies on men. Etta's appeal to the reader lies in her resemblance to those often-wronged black women blues artists, like Billie...
(The entire section is 1129 words.)
Ben belongs to Brewster Place even before the seven women do. The first black on Brewster Place, he arrived in 1953, just prior to the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Topeka decision. The Mediterranean families knew him as the man who would quietly do repairs with alcohol on his breath. He bothered no one and was noticed only when he sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
As black families move onto the street, Ben remains on Brewster Place. He befriends Lorraine when no one else will. She reminds him of his daughter, and this friendship assuages the guilt he feels over his daughter's fate. When he share-cropped in the South, his crippled daughter was sexually abused by a white landowner, and Ben felt powerless to do anything about it. He lives with this pain until Lorraine mistakenly kills him in her pain and confusion after being raped.
Kiswana grew up in Linden Hills, a "rich" neighborhood not far from Brewster Place. She leaves her middle-class family, turning her back on an upbringing that, she feels, ignored her heritage Light-skinned, with smooth hair, Kiswana wants desperately to feel a part of the black community and to help her fellow African Americans better their lives. After dropping out of college, Kiswana moves to Brewster Place to be a part of a predominantly African-American community. She becomes friends with Cora Lee and succeeds, for one night, in showing her a different life. In a...
(The entire section is 1616 words.)