Brown Girl, Brownstones

by Paule Marshall

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

Brown Girl, Brownstones, Marshall’s first novel, is the story of Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants, and her journey to womanhood. At ten, Selina resists her awkwardly changing body, uncomfortable yet fascinated by a dawning sexual awareness. Marshall writes candidly about women’s bodies, menstruation, and sexuality at a time when writers, especially women, were not encouraged to be so frank.

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This initiation novel brings Selina into much more than physical womanhood. She must also develop emotionally and mentally; she must learn humiliation, grief, understanding, and the courage to be herself. Many characters guide Selina through her approaching womanhood: the voluptuous boarder Suggie; Miss Thompson, an elderly southern hairdresser who serves as comforter and surrogate mother and whose foot bears an ulcerous “life-sore” as a direct result of racism; Selina’s schoolmate Beryl; and, of course, her parents. A final guide is Clive, a sometime artist whose major lesson for her is to learn to leave him.

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Selina’s real and ongoing conflict is with her mother, a blank, formidable woman. Eventually, Selina learns to understand her mother better, but she never completely overcomes her anger at her mother’s treatment of her father. Selina also recognizes that a part of her is determined and ruthless, too. She is her mother’s daughter as well as her father’s.

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A second plot line follows the complex struggle between Selina’s parents. Deighton, her charming yet doomed father, was a cosseted child who was sent to college in Barbados to become a teacher. His proud refusal to be treated as second-class, his insistence that the white world must see him as an equal, leads him to grandiose, ill-fated schemes. Silla, her mother, comes from a background of rural poverty and is determined to survive in “this man country” by acquiring property and renting to tenants. Her strength allows the family to survive as she moves from domestic work into a wartime job as a lathe operator. Silla, however, is weakened by her unquestioning embrace of American materialism. When she realizes that her husband’s dreams will never allow him to share her practical goals, she betrays him by acts that devastate the family.

The faded elegance of the Brooklyn brownstone that the Boyce family shares with other tenants symbolizes the changing neighborhood of the 1940’s. Upstairs lies the disabled Miss Mary, the death-in-life white servant of the building’s former owners, whispering of her dead lover and the vanished past. Next to her lives good-time Suggie, who lures a succession of strange men to her room on weekends to obliterate the loneliness and frustration of her life as a maid to a white family.

Marshall’s West Indian characters are, as always, her strength. Their rich dialect leaps off the page. They add an extra dimension to the novel by virtue of their customs, idioms, and intense desire for better lives.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791

Brown Girl, Brownstones examines the personal and social development of a young girl, Selina Boyce, born to first-generation Barbadian immigrants to New York. Her first impressions of the world include the heavy, oppressive brownstone dwellings of her neighborhood, a later symbol of all she wishes to escape. She grows up in an atmosphere of familial and social tension: World War II hovers vaguely over her childhood, but more immediate concerns are the battles within her own household.

Selina’s father, Deighton Boyce, is an unskilled and uneducated factory worker. His only asset is his buoyant and free-spirited personality, which carries him through various disappointments. When the accounting course he takes through the mail does not land him a job with a white accounting agency, he turns his back on the business world, dismissing it as hopelessly racist. He picks up a trumpet and is determined, for a time, to become a great jazz musician. Through all of his dreams and illusions, Selina is by his side, believing in him and protecting him from the cold blast of his wife’s derision. Silla Boyce wants only enough money to put a down payment on a house. She works at a factory to accomplish this end and deeply resents her husband’s unwillingness to surrender his dreams and embrace hers.

When Deighton learns that he has inherited a piece of land in Barbados, he begins to spin fantastic dreams about moving his family back to their homeland to live like proper landowners. The land represents to Deighton everything his black skin color has denied him: social status, communal respect, and a life of ease. Silla, however, has no intention of giving up her dream of a home and place in America, and she entertains no romantic illusions about life back in their homeland. In fact, as she explains to Selina, she remembers her life there as filled with torturous labor and unbearable isolation. To expect things to be any different because of a small plot of land is, to Silla, just another of her husband’s illusions.

When Silla succeeds in a scheme to sell the land for money to buy a house, the tenuous thread between the husband and wife breaks. Deighton feigns forgiveness and cons Silla into giving him the money to deposit in the bank, and instead he spends it all on a shopping spree for the family, returning home with every penny spent. From that moment, a cold silence pervades the Boyce home. Silla is determined to work for the money she lost; Deighton is determined to give her no support. When Deighton crushes his arm in a factory accident, he gives up all hope and resigns himself to the ascetic religious cult of Father Peace, who requires of his followers a total denial of earthly attachments, including marriage and family, and an immersion in a closed community of the faithful. Deighton leaves his family to work in this commune. Silla is so angered by his abandonment that she reports her husband’s illegal immigrant status to authorities, and he is deported. Soon after, the family learns that he fell or jumped overboard and drowned just as his ship reached the shores of Barbados.

Having been robbed of her only source of light and love by a mother who cannot understand her, Selina embarks on a painful process of self-discovery. She derives insight and strength from the eccentric role models of the bohemian Suggie, who instructs her in the power of passion, and the hairdresser Miss Thompson, whose strength and autonomy impress upon Selina the need for self-assurance and endurance. She meets Clive Springer, a war-beaten artist. He becomes her lover and educates her in the ways of the world, helping her to see her need to fight the “invisibility” caused by racism and antifeminism, both of which the growing Selina has begun to encounter. Selina plans to join a group of Barbados immigrants who meet to plan their assimilation into American society. Though she does not share their objectives, which she identifies as those of her mother, she hopes to win a monetary award and use it to escape with Clive. Ultimately, however, she is unable to overcome her feelings of hypocrisy and accept the award. She also realizes that Clive must be left behind in her search for self. The novel closes with Selina’s realization that she shares more of her mother’s strong and determined qualities than her father’s weaknesses, and a new mutual respect is achieved between mother and daughter. The strength her mother has bequeathed to Selina enables her to turn her back on all that is familiar and reach out for her roots to find a sense of who she is.

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