(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Paule Marshall’s sprawling novel Daughters presents another of her conflicted characters, the thirtyish urban professional Ursa Mackenzie, who is straddling two worlds: New York, where she lives and works, and the fictional Caribbean island of Triunion, where she spent her first fourteen years. Not only does she embody the clash of two cultures and the weight of history, but on a personal level she must find her own way. Choosing direct involvement over statistics, Ursa has just resigned her well-paid job with a consumer research group in order to assist the African American candidate for mayor in a nearby city. Her father, Primus Mackenzie, a powerful Triunion politician known to everyone as “the PM,” disapproves of her new career, but her liberal African American mother Estelle is pleased.

Ursa shares an uneasy connection with her parents and a failing relationship with a former lover, but she maintains a much stronger bond with her best friend and guide, Viney Daniels, an assistant vice president at Metropolitan Life and the mother of an exemplary son. Viney warns Ursa, “You can’t hear your own self, your own voice trying to tell you which way to go, what to do with your life.” A distorted version of their close friendship is mirrored by Astral Forde, the Creole manager of the PM’s faded hotel for retired tourists, and her impoverished friend Malvern, who never manages to rise.

In fact, Ursa frequently views her life...

(The entire section is 485 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Daughters examines the personal and political growth associated with Africa’s diaspora in both the United States and the West Indies. Ursa Mackenzie is a nexus of two cultures who is trying to understand both. Part of the upwardly mobile black middle class, Ursa struggles with personal identity and relationships in a context of privilege while other black people are victimized not only by racism but also by their own people’s participation in a corrupt and corrupting political system. Daughters juxtaposes the personal and the political to demonstrate how inextricably connected the two are: Individual achievement cannot come at the cost of the larger African community.

The novel opens with Ursa’s abortion, which is paralleled later by a back-alley abortion Astral Forde undergoes and is contrasted to Estelle’s many miscarriages. The pregnancy and subsequent abortion is emblematic of Ursa’s ambivalence regarding all aspects of her life—her relationship with Lowell Carruthers; a second master’s degree that she cannot bring to closure; her attitude toward and relationship with her parents, especially her father, and with the island of Triunion; and her career, which has gone from corporate success to freelance political research. She is caught in stasis. She cannot decide.

Ursa’s personal dilemma is twofold. One problem is her relationship with Lowell. Neither is willing to give up independence, to commit completely to each other, to get beyond their...

(The entire section is 615 words.)