Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Naylor began her celebration of black women’s lives with The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories. Exhibiting the varied backgrounds and experiences of seven different women, the seven stories of its subtitle can be read separately, but they are united by their setting and by characters who reappear from one story to the next. The stories also perform a kind of counterpoint to one another, with various parallels and contrasts. However varied the courses of their lives have been, the women now share a common fate: They have all arrived at the dead-end ghetto of Brewster Place, not only a racial and socioeconomic enclave but also a dumping ground for used women.
Mattie Michael, the motherly figure on the block, grew up in Tennessee and arrived on Brewster Place via repeated betrayals by the men in her life. During her youth, one weak moment in a basil patch with the sweet-talking Butch left her pregnant, for which her father brutally beat her and kicked her out. Finding refuge first with her friend Etta Mae Johnson and then in the home of another woman, Eva Turner, Mattie devoted her life to raising and pampering her son, Basil. Basil eventually repaid her by killing a man in a tavern brawl and, after Mattie posted her house for bail, skipping town. Minus son and home, Mattie also left town and headed for Brewster Place, located in a bleak northern city resembling Brooklyn, where she feels a sense of cultural dislocation on top of...
(The entire section is 783 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Women of Brewster Place is an unusual novel because of its structure. It consists of a prefatory Langston Hughes poem, a prologue (“Dawn”) and epilogue (“Dusk”), six stories featuring a character through whose eyes readers see the action unfold, and a seventh story, “The Block Party,” that brings many of the characters together in the violent destruction of a wall. The destruction, which occurs only in Mattie’s dream, is followed by a short description of the day of the block party. Naylor has described the book as a collection of interconnected short stories, but they do form a novel. The short stories, which are connected by recurring characters, concern the principal characters who come together for Mattie’s dream about the block party.
“Mattie Michaels,” the first story, concerns her seduction by Butch Fuller, by whom she becomes pregnant; her beating by her father when she will not identify Butch as the father of her child; and her betrayal by Basil, her son, who skips bail, costing her the house she had put up for bond. The story, however, also concerns Eva Turner, her benefactor; Lucielia Turner, who is reared with Basil; and Etta Mae Johnson, her friend in Rock Vale, Tennessee, and in Brewster Place. Mattie’s story concerns the events that led her to Brewster Place, and Etta’s story provides a short summary of her life, including a series of affairs, flight from the law, and her drive to Brewster Place in a...
(The entire section is 643 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Gloria Naylor’s first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, won the American Book Award for First Fiction in 1983 and was made into a film. Actually a novel in seven stories, it presents a series of interconnected tales about seven women who struggle to make peace with their pasts. The allegorical setting is Brewster Place, a dead-end ghetto street whose distinctive feature is the brick wall that bottles economic and racial frustration inside. Two interdependent themes bind the stories together: the violence that men enact on women is counteracted by the healing power of community. The novel’s innovative structure is key to Naylor’s purpose. Exploring the lives of different women on Brewster Place, Naylor attempts to create a microcosm of the black female experience in America.
The microcosm consists of seven African American women representing a range of ages, backgrounds, and sexualities. The first character introduced is Mattie Michael, whose fierce love for her son twice costs her the security and pride of a happy home. Her hard-won strength becomes the force that helps other women, such as Mattie’s oldest friend, Etta Mae Johnson, and Lucielia Louise Turner (Ciel), whom Mattie helped raise. One of the most powerful scenes of the novel is the one in which Mattie saves Ciel, who loses her desire to live after the tragic deaths of her two children. Kiswana Browne is a would-be revolutionary who attempts to reclaim her African heritage and...
(The entire section is 432 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
At twenty-three, Mattie Michael is seduced by Butcher Fuller, a handsome ne’er-do-well. When she becomes pregnant, her father beats her to get her to reveal her unborn child’s father. Mattie, disgraced in her father’s eyes, moves from home in Rock Vale, Tennessee, to North Carolina, where her friend Etta Mae Johnson takes her in. After Mattie’s son is born and Etta Mae moves on, Mattie starts boarding with Miss Eva and her granddaughter Ciel. After several years, Miss Eva dies, Ciel’s parents come for her, and Mattie is left with the responsibility for paying the mortgage and for raising her son Basil.
Miss Eva always said that Mattie is too indulgent and protective of Basil, but Mattie will not listen. When Basil, now grown, gets into a barroom fight and accidentally kills a man, his lack of moral fiber is apparent. He allows his mother to put up her now mortgage-free home as bond for his bail. He will not face the slim possibility of going to prison, though conviction is unlikely. He skips town and disappears. Mattie, homeless again, finds a home through Etta Mae in Brewster Place.
Etta Mae Johnson is in Brewster Place after many years of roaming from place to place, making and breaking off liaisons with men who temporarily support her. When she reaches the age where, as she says to Mattie, “each year there’s a new line [on her face] to cover” and her body “cries for just a little more rest,” she decides it is time to...
(The entire section is 950 words.)
Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place is made up of seven stories of the women who live on Brewster Place, a dead end street cut off from the city by a wall.
Mattie's journey to Brewster Place begins in rural Tennessee, but when she becomes pregnant she leaves town to avoid her father's wrath. For a while she manages to earn just enough money to pay rent on the room she shares with her baby, Basil, One night a rat bites the baby while they are sleeping and Mattie begins to search for a better place to live. Just as she is about to give up, she meets Eva Turner, an old woman who lives with her granddaughter, Ciel. Eva invites Mattie in for dinner and offers her a place to stay. Years later when the old woman dies, Mattie has saved enough money to buy the house. Ciel's parents take her away, but Mattie stays on with Basil. She refuses to see any faults in him, and when he gets in trouble with the law she puts up her house to bail him out of jail. When he jumps bail, she loses the house she had worked thirty years to own, and her long journey from Tennessee finally ends in a small apartment on Brewster Place.
Etta Mae Johnson
Though Etta's journey starts in the same small town as Mattie's, the path she takes to Brewster Place is very different. Discovering early on that America is not yet ready for a bold, confident, intelligent black woman, she learns to survive by attaching herself "to any...
(The entire section is 1299 words.)
Gloria Naylor's novel The Women of Brewster Place (1982) was awarded the American Book Award for best first novel in 1983. The book has been praised by critics for its characterization of social issues of its time, especially that of African American women struggling in an inner-city neighborhood. Sally Hoyman, writing for Women & Therapy, refers to Naylor's debut novel as a "heartwrenching story" as well as an "amazing literary beauty."
Naylor's novel opens with a chapter about the history of the street where much of the story will take place, Brewster Place. This area of an unnamed metropolis was first planned by a corrupt politician and a realtor to whom the politician owed a favor. A large apartment complex was built on a street that remained, for several years, unpaved. The politician, during his speech at the opening ceremony of the apartments, tells the well-wishers of the community that building this place is the least the city could do for their sons, who are just beginning to return from World War I. Brewster Place will provide their sons homes.
Brewster Place is a place of promise, the politician announces, because it is so close to a new main boulevard that will soon be created just north of it. Brewster Place will become a part of the main artery across town. Thus, it will be not only a great place to live but also a lucrative place to set up businesses. The people and their economies will flourish.
Over time, the boulevard the politician mentioned is constructed and does nourish a thriving business area. However, to better control traffic, some of the auxiliary streets, such as Brewster Place, have to be walled off. A great political battle ensues over the issue of which streets will be cut off. The neighborhoods with the loudest voices win. They let it be known that they do not want a wall erected on their streets, because they know that would destroy their local economy. Since the residents of Brewster Place, by that time, were mostly immigrants who struggled with the English language, they had no voice and therefore lost the battle that they did not even know was being fought. In the middle of one night, a brick wall is constructed. By morning, Brewster Place has become a dead-end street.
Time moves on again, and the children of the Mediterranean immigrants living on Brewster Place decide that there are better places to live. When they become adults, they...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
Mattie Michael, Sections 1-3 Summary
The first woman whose life is detailed in The Women of Brewster Place is Mattie Michael, one of the most important characters in this novel. Mattie is older than the other main characters and comes to Brewster Place after her son, Basil, has forced her to leave her Southern home. Readers are introduced to Mattie as she is moving into an apartment on Brewster Place.
One of the first things that Mattie notices about her new neighborhood is the two-story-high brick wall that stands only six feet from her apartment. The wall, she realizes, will block out the sun for all the houseplants she has brought with her. In her Southern home, the plants had thrived. Thus the wall is a foreshadowing symbol of the changes in Mattie's life.
As Mattie moves into Brewster Place, she reflects on the circumstances in her past that have led her here. She begins with Butch Fuller, a handsome young man who flirts with her and eventually talks her into having sex. Butch Fuller becomes the father of Mattie's son, though Butch plays no further role in their lives, except that the son, Basil, turns out to be very much like his father.
When Mattie tells her mother, Fannie, that she is pregnant, her mother tries to allay Mattie's fears. She tells Mattie that there is nothing to be ashamed of in having a baby. Even Mattie's father, Sam, is decent when he learns about the pregnancy. Sam is quiet for a few days as he thinks over the question of what to do. He reminds Mattie that he has always been good to her. Sam's attitude changes, though, once he finds out that the baby's father is not Fred Watson, a man Sam had considered a good candidate as Mattie's husband. When Mattie will not tell her father the name of the man who got her pregnant, Sam loses his temper and beats Mattie. Fearful for her daughter's life, Fannie gets Sam's rifle and shoots it above his head in warning. Only then does Sam stop beating Mattie with the broom. When he comes to his senses, Sam sees the crumpled body lying on his porch and mourns the fact that it is his daughter.
A week later, Mattie leaves her family's home and travels to North Carolina to the home of her friend Etta, where Mattie's son will be born. Etta will not, however, provide a permanent home for Mattie and her son. Etta wants to move north. At the time, Mattie is not ready to follow her. So Mattie struggles to find a job to pay for a room and a babysitter. The situation proves too...
(The entire section is 529 words.)
Mattie Michael, Sections 4-5 Summary
Mattie stays with Eva until the older woman dies. By then, Mattie has saved enough money to make a down payment on Eva's house and make it her own. Mattie has to work two jobs, though, to pay the mortgage. In the meanwhile, her son, Basil, grows up.
As a boy, Basil had been sickly, which made Mattie spoil him a lot. She always thought she needed to defend him at school, too. When things did not work out at one school, she moved Basil to a new school. She always gave into him rather than disciplining and disappointing him. Eva had pointed this out to Mattie, telling her that kind of love was not healthy for the boy, but Mattie chose to ignore the older woman's advice. Mattie thought she knew what was best for her son.
As an adult, Basil's faults are more obvious, but Mattie still chooses to ignore them. He cannot hold down a job and often comes to her for money. He has no friends, or at least he never brings them home. She buys him a car and often has to give him money for gas. When she asks him to help her around the house, such as cutting the grass, Basil has excuses as to why the chores must wait for another day. Still, Mattie rationalizes that Basil is a sensitive boy. He needs special attention. She must forgive his faults.
One night, she receives a phone call from Basil. He is saying something about a fight in a bar and being arrested. She has trouble understanding him not only because his voice is not clear but also because she cannot fathom that her son would get into so much trouble. When she goes to the police station to see Basil, he begs her to pay bail so he can get out. He complains about the broken toilet and the bedbugs in his bed in the cell. He cannot stand to spend another night there.
Mattie, rather than trusting a public defender, purchases the services of an expensive lawyer to defend Basil. She must have the best. The lawyer thinks Basil's case is a simple one and is surprised that Mattie would put herself so deeply in debt to pay him. When Mattie insists on posting bail, the lawyer suggests that she wait. The trial is only two weeks away. Surely her son can wait. Mattie is persuaded by Basil to do what she can to get him out of jail. He does not care what it costs. Mattie, wracked with guilt and feeling a mother's unconditional love, uses her house as collateral to have Basil released. The lawyer warns her that if Basil does not show up for his trial date, Mattie will lose her...
(The entire section is 555 words.)
Etta Mae Johnson Summary
Etta Mae Johnson is a lifelong friend of Mattie's. The two women have known one another since childhood. It was to Etta Mae that Mattie turned when Mattie was pregnant. In spite of their long relationship, the two women are very different from one another. Whereas Mattie has always been determined to live her life independently, Etta Mae has spent most of her life looking for a man to take care of her. Though she has been in many disastrous relationships, Etta Mae still hopes that one day her dream of a perfect man will appear.
Etta Mae arrives after Mattie has been living at Brewster Place for a while. She had written to Mattie telling her to expect her. What Mattie did not expect was to see Etta Mae arrive in a pink Cadillac. Etta tells Mattie that her last boyfriend had promised to buy her an airline ticket when she told him she was leaving. When he changed his mind and refused to give her the money for a ticket, Etta Mae stole the car keys while her boyfriend was sleeping and drove to Brewster Place by herself. When Mattie admonishes her for stealing, Etta Mae explains that all she could have afforded was a ticket on a Greyhound bus. She is too proud to have allowed anyone to see her getting off a bus. She believes that her lifestyle and social status are above that.
Etta Mae has always been proud. She believed, even as a young girl, that she deserved whatever she wanted, even if that desire involved a white man. She lived in the Deep South in the 1930s, a time of the racist Jim Crow Laws that did not allow a black person to even look in the eyes of a white person, let alone a black woman to be flagrant about her sexual relationship with a white male, which is exactly what Etta Mae did. Actions such as this was what caused Etta Mae to be run out of town on several occasions. In some cases, she was running to save her life.
When Etta Mae talks about needing money, Mattie suggests that she find a job. However, Etta Mae says she has no skills, except those of flirting with men, who then support her for short periods of time. Thinking that Etta Mae might meet a different type of man, Mattie invites her to come to church.
During the sermon, Etta Mae appears to be moved by the preacher's manner of speaking, or so Mattie thinks until Etta Mae asks whether the preacher is married. When Mattie tells her that the Reverend Woods is a widower, Etta Mae becomes even more interested. In the end, she manages to...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
Kiswana Browne Summary
Kiswana Browne is a twenty-something college dropout. She comes from a well-to-do upper-middle-class family but has chosen to live in a studio apartment on Brewster Place. When she looks out her sixth-floor apartment window, she can see the tops of the trees of the neighborhood where she lived until recently and sometimes longs for the luxury of the place. However, she is determined to make her own way in the world without her parents' help or their influence.
On this day, as she is looking out of her window, she recognizes the well-dressed woman walking toward her building. When the woman nears, Kiswana realizes that it is her mother. So Kiswana rushes around her apartment, quickly picking up clothes, making up the sofa bed, and otherwise clearing away all signs of her boyfriend, Abshu, who shares the place with her. Just before her mother makes it to the door, Kiswana quickly circles several help-wanted ads to make it look as if she were serious about finding a job.
When she opens the door, she finds her mother, well dressed as usual. Her mother greets her, calling her Melanie. It is the name Kiswana was born with. Only recently has Kiswana changed it, to make her feel more African. Her mother apologizes for visiting without giving Kiswana any notice. If her daughter had a phone, Mrs. Browne says, she could have made better arrangements. Kiswana explains that the phone company demands that she pay a large deposit before they will provide services, and currently Kiswana cannot afford it. Hearing this, Kiswana's mother tells her that she will give her daughter the money, but Kiswana refuses to be indebted to her family.
Mrs. Browne notices the circled ads and admonishes her daughter for not having stayed in college. If she had finished her degree, Mrs. Browne tells her, she could have a better job and would not have to live in such poverty. Kiswana tells her mother that she wants to experience the life of what she refers to as "their people," insinuating that poor African Americans are more real than African Americans who live middle-class lives. Mrs. Browne bristles at this suggestion. She reminds her daughter that her great-grandfather, as well as her grandparents, were very much involved in fighting not only for civil rights but also for better lives. They worked hard, and there was nothing to be ashamed of in being successful. She also tells Kiswana how much it hurt her when her daughter wanted to change her...
(The entire section is 548 words.)
Luciella Louise Turner Summary
Lucielia Louise Turner is the mother of a young girl, Serena. As this chapter opens, people are gathering for Serena's funeral. At first there is no explanation given for the girl's death. There is only a discussion between a man named Eugene, who claims to be Serena's father, and Ben, the apartment janitor. Eugene is complaining because everyone, especially Mattie, is refusing to allow Eugene to attend his daughter's funeral.
The story then jumps backward in time to when Serena was still alive. Lucielia, who is referred to as Ciel, is doing the dishes when she hears the door to her apartment open. Without turning, she knows it is Eugene. He is the only other person who has a key. She has not seen Eugene in a long time. She is glad that he has finally come home.
When Mattie, Ciel's best friend, hears that Eugene has returned, she insinuates that he will not stay around long and implies that Ciel should prepare for his departure. Ciel tries to argue with Mattie, telling her that this time is different. She says that Eugene has changed. He has a job.
The story jumps forward, as Ciel is trying to figure out when things went wrong again. For a while, she and Eugene had done better. However, the tension between them slowly started to increase. She is not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with her getting pregnant again. Eugene has complained that he can never get ahead. They have too many bills, and now with another child coming, the bills will just get worse. Then Eugene comes home early one day and tells Ciel that he has been fired from another job.
Blaming herself for her marital problems, Ciel has an abortion. She thinks this will save her marriage. Her decision to have the abortion makes her feel as if she were split into two different women. One woman has made the decision to have the abortion. The other one is completely against it and does not admit any of the emotions that spring forth because of the other woman's decision. The two parts of her do agree on one thing: the abortion was something that had to be done.
Months later, Eugene arrives home in a very excited mood. He has a chance to better his situation. He must pack. He will be going away so he can take advantage of this great opportunity that he does not define. At first, he says only that the job is in Maine. A few minutes later, he says the job is in Rhode Island. As Ciel and Eugene argue about what he is doing, their...
(The entire section is 562 words.)
Cora Lee Summary
According to her parents, Cora Lee was an unusual child. All she wanted for Christmas each year was a new doll. The doll had to be a special kind. It had to look like a baby. Even when she was thirteen, Cora Lee still asked for a new baby doll. Finally, her father refused, saying that she was too old for dolls.
Shortly after this incident, one of Cora Lee's sisters told their mother that Cora Lee was doing "nasty" with one of the neighborhood boys. When the mother approached her, Cora Lee said that what she had done was not nasty because it felt very good. Her mother warned Cora Lee that she had to be careful now because even though it might feel good, having sex with a boy could lead to getting pregnant. When her mother explained that pregnancy meant that Cora Lee would have a real baby, Cora Lee took the message in a completely different way than her mother had intended. A couple of years later, Cora Lee dropped out of school and gave birth to her first child.
In the present time, Cora Lee has seven children. She has a compulsion to have babies. She loves the softness of their skin, the way they smell, and how easy they are to take care of. She does not like, however, what babies grow into. Once they are past their baby stage, they get into too much trouble, are too expensive to keep, and make too much work for her. Cora Lee does not have the energy nor the patience to raise them. She often calls them "dumb-asses" because they fall down and get hurt, eat food out of garbage cans, and are truant from school. Coral Lee is overwhelmed by her growing children.
One day, as Cora Lee is trying to watch her favorite soap operas, there is a knock on the door. When she opens it, she finds a pretty young woman standing there who introduces herself as Kiswana Browne. Kiswana has brought a petition that she wants Cora Lee to sign. If the neighbors organize themselves, Kiswana says, they can demand that the landlord make the needed repairs. Cora Lee does not understand how this will work, since most of the tenants are black and the landlord is white. How can black folks make white folks do anything?
As Kiswana is explaining, she sees how much help Cora Lee needs in raising her children. They are obviously hungry, unruly, undisciplined, and they need more attention than their mother can give. Cora Lee has boyfriends who come to sleep in her bed but are gone by the time the children get up in the morning. Of the...
(The entire section is 618 words.)
The Two Summary
Lorraine and Theresa share an apartment on Brewster Place. They are new residents who are readily accepted, at least when they first move in. After a while, though, after some of the other neighbors notice that no men come and go from their apartment, Lorraine and Theresa become topics of malicious gossip. One of the residents, whose apartment is across an alley from the two women's, claims that she has watched Lorraine and Theresa and finds them suspicious. They are very friendly with one another, and their relationship appears "unnatural," according to the gossip.
Lorraine is tall and thin. In comparison to Theresa, Lorraine is quiet and likes to keep to herself. She is a schoolteacher and is wary of people spreading rumors about her. A few years back, Lorraine was forced to leave her teaching position in Detroit after rumors about her spread. Parents did not approve of a lesbian teaching their children. It was Lorraine who had suggested that she and Theresa move to Brewster Place. She thought people there would not pay so much attention to them and would not care about their lifestyle. However, after living there for a few months, Lorraine begins to notice a difference in her neighbors' attitude toward her. Whereas they used to greet her whenever she walked down the street, most of the women now look away as if she were not there.
When Lorraine mentions this, Theresa thinks that Lorraine is acting paranoid. Theresa is more outgoing and at the same time less sensitive about what other people think. Theresa complains that they have moved every time Lorraine believed other people were staring at her. She tells Lorraine that she refuses to move again.
Believing there is a possibility that Theresa is right, when Lorraine hears about a tenant meeting that Kiswana has arranged, she decides to attend. Though the meeting concerns the need for tenants to sign a petition to force the landlord to make repairs to the building, the conversation, at Lorraine's appearance, turns into a diatribe against her. When Lorraine is taunted about being a lesbian, she leaves the meeting in tears. On her way home, she runs into Ben, who soothes and befriends her.
Tension builds as it becomes more evident that several neighbors do not want Lorraine and Theresa to live there. When Theresa stops to aid a young neighborhood girl who has skinned her knees, for example, the girl's mother is obviously startled to find Theresa...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
The Block Party & Dusk Summary
Kiswana has planned a block party for Brewster Place to raise funds to pay for a lawyer so the tenants can fight their absent landlord. It has been raining all week, ever since the morning that Ben died. There is no mention of Lorraine and what has happened to her. All that readers know is that she is no longer there.
Mattie is outside, grilling ribs. Other women stand behind tables filled with cakes and other desserts. Music is playing and Etta is dancing. Kiswana moves from one table to the next, worried about the sales as well as the dark clouds that are forming overhead. Customers from around the neighborhood are coming to eat.
When Mattie looks up from her cooking, she sees a woman walking toward her. As the woman draws near, she recognizes her. It is Ciel, the woman whose child had been electrocuted years before. Ciel had disappeared without leaving a note. No one had heard from her. No one knew where she had gone.
The first thing Ciel says as Mattie embraces her is to apologize for not writing. Ciel tells Mattie that she had to go away. She traveled west until she reached the ocean and could go no farther. She was in San Francisco by then and decided to start a new life there. It was not until now that she had the strength to return to Brewster Place. What had prompted her was a dream she had about a woman she thought might have been herself, who was brutally beaten and left for dead. When Ciel describes the woman in her dream, Mattie is amazed how closely Ciel has identified Lorraine. That dream, Ciel says, is the reason she decided it was time to come back home.
As the street party continues, readers learn that Cora Lee is pregnant again. She is outside with all her children, helping the women serve refreshments. When the first few drops of rain fall, Kiswana urges everyone to pack up the food and tables and find shelter. However, Cora Lee is distracted because she has lost track of one of her children. When she finds her, Cora Lee notices that her daughter has been scraping against one of the bricks in the tall wall that cuts off Brewster Place from the surrounding neighborhoods. The brick has come loose. Upon closer inspection, Cora Lee thinks she sees blood on the brick and shouts out to the other women. One by one, the women notice other bricks that have blood on them, so they dig the bricks out of the wall. They exclaim that it is not right that bloodstained bricks should be there. Soon...
(The entire section is 534 words.)