Gloria Naylor, whose The Women of Brewster Place won the American Book Award for a First Novel in 1983, is already numbered, with Alice Walker and Toni Morrison among the freshest and most vital voices in contemporary American literature. In the fiction of Morrison, Walker, and Naylor, history comes alive: the regional and the individual become the source of rich narrative exploration which moves forward as well as back in time.
Perhaps even more than in the fiction of Morrison and Walker, history and place are motive forces in The Women of Brewster Place. Naylor’s characters are connected by social bonds which they recognize, depend on, and struggle to keep alive for the future. They share with the characters of Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) and Morrison’s Sula (1973) an unusual strength that comes from the communion of women—a communion not “mythic” or “mystical,” but spiritual in the sense that it is a shared psychological stratagem, developed in response to oppression and isolation.
The Women of Brewster Place is, as its subtitle indicates, a novel comprising seven linked stories. Six of the stories concern individual black women—except in the case of “The Two,” the story of a Lesbian couple—while the seventh, “The Block Party,” unites the women in defense of the street which provides the visible link between their lives. These seven stories are framed by two brief passages set in italics: “Dawn,” which recounts the birth of Brewster Place at the end of World War I, “the bastard child” of a corrupt deal between city aldermen and a local contractor, a political sop to the then-Irish neighborhood; and “Dusk,” which recounts the death of Brewster Place in the present, when its last, dark children are evicted from its derelict buildings.
As the women remind one another, Brewster Place is a dead end, the end of the line, a ghetto behind a wall which was erected to separate the street from the clogged main artery of the town. But if their lives are cut off from the mainstream of the city’s life, they nevertheless retain signs of vigorous communal health—in their work, in their children, and, most especially, in their conversation. Using a language of banter, insult, and affection which relishes its own brashness and inventiveness, they speak to one another in words that are robustly alive and often outrageously funny.
Foremost among these vital characters is Mattie Michael, whose experience and friendship remain after her chapter, the first in the book, as a kind of ground bass to the rest of the stories. She enters the novel as an elderly woman recalling the time when she was a naïve young girl on a small farm in Tennessee. Although she was overprotected by her stern though adoring father, Mattie was easily seduced by the pleasure-loving, cinnamon-red young Butch Fuller, who believed that you should spit out what tastes good before it turns to straw in your mouth. When she recalls the one time they lay together, it is the mossy, cool place with its wild, dark basil and thyme that she remembers instead of Butch. She associates the place, not the man, with the son she bears, and she names him for the wild herb that grew where he was conceived: Basil.
Beaten by her father when she refuses to name the man who fathered her unborn child, Mattie is saved by the intervention of her mother—who, like the mother in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1951), threatens her husband’s life in the name of her child. Like Trueblood’s wife in Invisible Man, Fannie Michael takes a weapon to the husband/father, promising to meet his soul in Hell. The similarity between these scenes is resonant, for the sexual assault on the daughter, which Ellison’s Trueblood claims not to have intended, is shown in Naylor’s novel to be equivalent to other forms of violence automatically directed against women by fathers and lovers. Both male sexuality and male impotence too often incite acts of violence from which women suffer. Old Ben, a janitor in Brewster Place, who was too weak to protect his lame daughter from the sexual claims made on her by her white employer, pays with guilt and grief for his complicity in refusing to see what lay behind her bruised eyes. Yet, although the failures of fathers, sons, and lovers are usually counterbalanced in Naylor’s world by the love and comfort which women provide one another, daughters do inherit the weaknesses of their fathers, and mothers—like Ben’s wife and like the women of Brewster Place who turn against the young Lesbians—are often unequal to the enormous task of substituting life for destruction.
The legacy of Sam Michael’s...