Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)
Brown Girl, Brownstones, Paule Marshall’s first novel, was published in 1959. Although the novel received good reviews, it did not enjoy commercial success and went out of print. It was given a new life when the Feminist Press reprinted it in 1982. Since then, the novel has been widely read and used in classrooms. It belongs to the tradition of Bildungsroman, a novel dealing with the theme of coming-of-age. It is one of the few novels that portray the inner life of a young, first-generation American woman of West Indian origin.
Like many first novels, Brown Girl, Brownstones draws heavily on the author’s own life. Marshall’s parents also came from Barbados, and, like Selina, Marshall also had a father who failed his family. Selina’s introspective nature and her desire to understand the world around her is also based on Marshall’s adolescence. In several interviews, she has commented that when she was growing up, she could find no books that depicted people like her; she wrote Brown Girl, Brownstones to fill that vacuum. Marshall has expressed her debt to Thomas Mann and Gwendolyn Brooks in the writing of her first novel. Following Mann in Buddenbrooks (1901), she attempts to trace the development of her main character in the context of her family. Emulating Brooks in Maud Martha (1953), Marshall focuses on the mind of a young African American woman. The novel succeeds in re-creating the world of a female protagonist in much the way that James Baldwin did for a young male protagonist in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).