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Daughters Summary

(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 as “a series of double exposures,” with “everything superimposed on everything else.” From her dual vision of parallel scandals in the Caribbean and the United States by politicians who ignore the needs of their black citizens, she learns to make connections. Her mayoral candidate, like her beloved father, has become a puppet for the moneyed interests that have always controlled politics.

Throughout her novel, Marshall works with a complex astronomical metaphor that often seems forced. The petite Ursa—whose unusual name suggests the constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Bear or Little Dipper that guided escaping slaves northward—was named for her formidable grandmother, Ursa Major, a matriarch highly respected in Triunion. The elder woman’s physically imposing son (sun) is the PM, who employs a loyal family servant named Celestine and is married to tiny Estelle (star) and whose customary keep-miss, or mistress, is Astral. These women “form another constellation” around him.

Marshall emphasizes the many ways in which women form connections: through blood, through history, through shared experience. In addition, inspired by a statue of rebellious slaves on Triunion, Ursa seeks to complete her once-rejected master’s thesis showing how black men and women worked together as equals during this rebellion. The reconciliation of these modern daughters—their united love, anger, and desire to reform a corrupt political system—enables them to renew the PM’s health and energy, returning him to his youthful dream of improving the lives of his people.

Summary

(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...

(The entire section is 1,100 words.)