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Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Banana Bottom is the story of a young Jamaican woman’s discovery of her country, her people, and herself. The novel begins with the return to Jamaica of twenty-two-year-old Tabitha “Bita” Plant, who has been abroad for seven years. After a flashback in which he explains the reasons for her absence, McKay tells the story of Bita’s life from her homecoming to her marriage, concluding with a brief epilogue that shows her as a contented wife and mother.

The tone of the book is detached, the pace leisurely. Like a loquacious village storyteller, McKay moves from episode to episode as if there were no direction to his narrative. When, at the end of Banana Bottom, Bita freely chooses a husband and a way of life, each of the earlier encounters takes on a new significance. It is then clear that every character, every incident, and every discussion in the novel has in some way affected Bita’s development.

Although as the first native black girl to receive an English education, Bita Plant returns home a celebrity, she had very nearly been ruined in her childhood, when she had sexual intercourse with a half-crazy musical genius. Although he was charged with rape and sent away, Bita’s reputation was tarnished. Fortunately, her father, the prosperous farmer Jordan Plant, could turn to the white missionaries Malcolm and Priscilla Craig, who took Bita to their home in Jubilee. Later, the Craigs decided to use her as an experiment, to show how an English education could transform a native girl. What they did not expect was that Bita would return to Jamaica with a mind of her own.

Bita’s vacillations between doing what is expected of her and making her own choices can be charted through her movements between her home in Jubilee, where the Craigs expect her to act in accordance with the rules of their strict denomination, and her home in Banana Bottom, where she has more latitude. After her return to Jamaica, Bita at first moves back in with the Craigs and, just as easily, accepts the plans they have made for her, even agreeing to marry another of their projects, the ministry student Herald Newton Day. Although she enjoys the activities at the mission, however, Bita soon becomes fascinated with her own culture, as represented by the effervescent horse-dealer and gambler Hopping Dick Delgado. Although she does not at the time realize it, when she sneaks away from the mission to go with him to functions of which the Craigs disapprove, Bita is beginning the process of rejecting Jubilee in favor of Banana Bottom and the culture of her own people.

Additionally, the more Bita sees of her self-centered, self-important fiancé, the less she wants to spend her life with him. When her stepmother Naomi Plant (Anty Nommy) becomes ill, Bita is shocked to find herself secretly delighted, because in leaving the mission, she will be escaping from Herald.

At Banana Bottom, Bita is free of the restraints that she always feels in Jubilee. She has long conversations with the freethinker Squire Gensir, a white British aristocrat, who places great value on native folklore and customs. She also comes to appreciate the power of Obi, the African god of evil, who may very well be responsible for Herald’s disgrace: Herald sexually abuses a nanny goat, an episode that ends his career in the church as well as any expectation that he will marry Bita.

When Bita returns to Jubilee, however, it becomes clear that Bita’s unhappiness at the mission was not merely the result of Herald’s proximity but instead reflected her growing rebellion against the Craigs’ view of life. Simply because she feels so imprisoned, Bita declares her intention of marrying Hopping Dick. Desperate, the Craigs send for Anty Nommy, who first disposes of Bita’s suitor by appearing to expect an immediate wedding and then takes Bita home with her. It is obvious to everyone that Bita will never again be able to live at Jubilee.

At Banana Bottom, Bita can at last decide her own destiny. Freed from...

(The entire section is 1,360 words.)