Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People has much in common with Marshall’s earlier novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), and her book of short stories, Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961). All three works concern protagonists discovering their identity, the importance of heritage and tradition, and the interdependence of people who learn to share instead of remaining isolated individuals. The first novel concerns a young girl growing up; the short stories focus on old men who refuse to share; The Chosen Place, the Timeless People concerns a middle-aged woman and man who choose to share their memories and lives, thereby freeing themselves of past sins. Harriet and Allen are unable to share and to participate in life; they remain spectators. Allen is unable even to talk about his repressed homosexual feelings for Vere. He certainly does not act on them.

Marshall’s novel has proved to be influential in a number of ways. Her strong women characters, those she thought had been neglected in literature, have been emulated by many African American women writers. In lending an air of myth and legend to her fictitious world, she prepared the way for writers such as Gloria Naylor, whose Mama Day (1989) also takes place on a fictitious island, this one off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Both islands are “ruled” by strong women who are intent on reenacting legend, making it ever new.

What distinguishes Marshall’s novel from Naylor’s is the political message of The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. Colonialism and racism are the villains in Marshall’s novel, and her book is unabashedly political in nature. When people like Lyle Hutson sell out their people, research agencies come and go, and industrial magnates close down factories, half-way measures such as transporting cane to another factory are insufficient. Lyle knew this but forgot; Merle has not forgotten. It is this strong political indictment of the system that accounts for much of the novel’s appeal.