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Book 3 of Paule Marshall’s coming-of-age story set in a lower-income neighborhood in Brooklyn and featuring a girl’s transition to womanhood under trying circumstances is titled “The War,” and does constitute the bulk of this novel. The reason for the is chapter’s length could simply have to do with the formative effects the world war had on the Boyce family and the fact that the war’s duration coincided with Selina’s physical transformation, captured in the following passage from Brown Girl, Brownstones:
“For a long time she did not really believe in the war, even with the air-raid drills in school, and Chauncey Street occasionally plunged into blackness, and Fulton Street chastened by the brown-out. Not until later that winter when the war seemed to reach out and claim her. For her body was in sudden upheaval – her dark blood flowing as it flowed in the war, the pain at each shudder of her womb as sharp as the thrust of a bayonet.”
Putting aside the obvious advantage of war-related metaphors applied to the onset of menstruation, the greatest war in human history could not help but play a major role in a novel depicting the struggles and conflicts of and within an immigrant family of color in a racially-divided country ironically fighting the inherently racist regime in Nazi Germany. Marshall’s use of the section heading “The War” clearly is meant to apply not just to the actual war being fought in Europe and Asia, but to the “war” being fought within Selina’s family. Her father, Deighton, and her mother, Silla, have long been at odds regarding the latter’s ambitions to live “the American dream” and the former’s commensurate lack of drive or ambition embodied in his less-than-half-hearted efforts at self-education to prepare him for a profession or trade. This internal conflict reaches its climax with Silla’s decision to report Deighton’s immigration status – in effect, the fact that he entered the United States illegally, a point in which he takes pride early in this chapter when he explains to Selina why he doesn’t fear being drafted into the war effort (in response to Selina’s question as to whether her father will be drafted, Deighton replies, “Draft what? I’s something to draft too?” He laughed bitterly. “As far as the record goes I ain even in this country since I did enter illegally.”) – which results in Deighton’s deportation and probable suicide, an event the reporting to Silla of which coincides with the war’s end:
“On the day the war ended, a cable arrived saying that either jumped or fallen overboard and drowned . . .While Silla read them the cable, the radio announced the war’s end, and all down the sun-swept streets windows were raised and the news was shouted.”
Book 3 is the longest chapter of Marshall’s novel because it includes so much of the story’s narrative. Against the backdrop of a war that lasted four years (for America; several years longer for Europe), the story’s main protagonist matured and transited the crucial period of physical and emotional development in a young girl/woman’s life. That provides for considerable narrative expanse, and the relationship between Deighton and Silla had to evolve toward its ultimate resolution, with two great wars ending on the same day.
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