Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie

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Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie, the protagonist and narrator. The only child of a teacher from Connecticut and a prominent West Indian political leader, Ursa now lives in New York City after having spent her first fourteen years on the island of Triunion. Although she seems independent and successful, in fact everything about Ursa’s life is uncertain, from her future as a free-lance researcher to her relationship with her longtime lover, Lowell Carruthers, whom she trusts so little that she has an abortion without even informing him of her pregnancy. It becomes evident that Ursa cannot proceed with her own life until she has sorted out her feelings about her parents and her native island.

Estelle Beatrice Harrison Mackenzie

Estelle Beatrice Harrison Mackenzie, Ursa’s mother. An intelligent, idealistic young grade school teacher from Hartford, Connecticut, she falls in love with the personable Primus Mackenzie and commits her life to him and his Caribbean island. Their marriage is marred not only by Estelle’s repeated difficulties in carrying a child to term but also by her husband’s insistence on maintaining a mistress. When Ursa is still a baby, Estelle walks out, but she decides to remain in what she realizes is a flawed relationship with a flawed man.

Primus Mackenzie (The PM)

Primus Mackenzie (The PM), Ursa’s father, a personable lawyer, politician, and hotel owner on Triunion. Throughout his childhood, Primus is indulged and spoiled by adoring women, who nickname the bright little boy “The PM” in anticipation of his becoming a prominent leader, perhaps a prime minister. Despite Primus’ charm, he has a serious weakness—his inability to make difficult moral choices—that eventually leads to his political downfall.

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Astral Delores Forde

Astral Delores Forde, a poor woman from rural Triunion who sees her establishment as Primus’ mistress and the manager of the hotel he owns as a first step up the social ladder. After the birth of Ursa, she realizes that she will never climb any higher and never take Estelle’s place as Primus’ wife. The fact that in Ursa’s presence Primus expects Astral to assume the role of a servant makes it clear how insensitive he is about his mistress’ feelings. After a life of loneliness, humiliation, and suppressed resentment, Astral finally is rewarded when Ursa offers her not merely respect but also a daughter’s affection.

Vincereta (Viney) Daniels

Vincereta (Viney) Daniels, Ursa’s closest friend, a black insurance executive in New York City. After years of searching for a worthy man to share her life, Viney decides to remain independent and to concentrate on rearing her young son, a product of artificial insemination. Her strength in adversity and her refusal to accept the second best make Viney an inspiration for Ursa.

Lowell Carruthers

Lowell Carruthers, Ursa’s lover. An executive with a manufacturing company, Carruthers is a self-centered man who values Ursa because she will listen for hours to his complaints about his job. Because he is spineless, he resents every evidence of independence on Ursa’s part, such as her leaving a secure position to launch into consultant work.

Ursa Louise Wilkerson Mackenzie

Ursa Louise Wilkerson Mackenzie, known as Mis-Mack, the mother of Primus Mackenzie. A hardworking woman who ran the family business while her husband loafed and boasted, she unwittingly influenced Primus’ perception of a man’s proper place in the world.

Celestine Marie-Claire Bellegarde

Celestine Marie-Claire Bellegarde, an abandoned child who was taken in by Mis-Mack and trained as a nurse for her children. Throughout her life, she remains devoted to Primus and to Ursa, both of whom she considers her own. Celestine’s monologues reflect not only her jealousy of Estelle but also the hostility of many islanders toward new ways and new ideas.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724

The novel begins in the 1980’s and is not a straightforward chronological account. Paule Marshall uses a variety of narrative techniques to tell her story. In the process of moving Ursa’s story forward, Marshall often relies on flashbacks to recount the lives of Primus, Estelle, Celestine, Viney, and Ursa. Marshall also uses an epistolary approach to reveal Estelle’s thoughts and experiences. She permits intimate looks at Celestine through her first-person accounts of her life, along with providing deeply personal narratives by Astral Forde.

In order to understand the present, readers must know a character’s past. His pampered and privileged upbringing has turned Primus into a domineering man. Ursa’s childhood memories of him are larger than life, recalling him as a man whose “head would be in the way of the sun.” Celestine’s complete and unquestioning devotion to him reinforces his behavior, much to Estelle’s dismay. Celestine will not accept Estelle’s American ways of doing things—wanting air conditioning and louvered windows, dressing her child in overalls with ducks on the bib rather than in starched pretty dresses and gold bangles, and transforming Mis-Mack’s store into an office where Primus can meet his constituents. She can even take Primus’s side in his long-standing affair with Astral Forde since, she rationalizes, all Triunion men have at least one “keep-miss.” Primus, however, is devoted to his wife and child. After wondering why Estelle did not leave her father when she discovered his affair with Astral, Ursa finally concludes that what she has “tried for years to understand about these two is perhaps none of her business.”

In her letters to the “homefolks,” Estelle provides an account of her life on the island and her reflections on events back in the United States. Living in two places, she provides perspectives on both: on the new independence of Triunion and the island’s corruption as well as on American historical facts including the Jim Crow laws that her parents endured while traveling in the South in the early 1950’s, the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the marches through the South in the 1960’s (during which her brother’s hip is broken by the police in an Alabama jail), the 1963 March on Washington, the Black Power movement, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She tells Ursa, “I decided to write off the eighties the day Bonzo’s friend was sworn in.”

Astral Forde’s embittered narrative helps readers to understand the silent woman who watches young Ursa swim laps in a hotel swimming pool and who greets her as if she were a maid. Ursa later apologizes for treating Astral this way. Astral and her best friend, Malvern, hoped to improve themselves by moving from Spanish Bay to Fort Lord Nelson. Malvern finds a kind, broad-faced bus driver who gives her more children than can be accommodated in their poor excuse of a shack perched on a hill in Fort Lord Nelson’s shantytown. When she dies of cancer, though, she has husband, children, and Astral to note her passing. Astral has only Malvern, whom she sees when she needs someone upon whom to unload her selfish and obsessive concerns. Even at Malvern’s deathbed, Astral’s most pressing need is to rail at the half-conscious Malvern over Primus’s intention of selling his hotel, which Astral manages. It is the only thing in the world that Astral has left.

Ursa, like her mother, is a woman of two cultures trying to reconcile them. She is also a woman of two identities—an independent New York career woman and a daughter tied to her family in Triunion. It is Lowell who makes her confront that dependent daughter, eventually forcing her to return home after a four-year absence to face the island, her parents, and herself. It is her mother who pushes her to break Triunion’s and Primus’s stasis by giving the resort prospectus to her father’s political opponent, a young idealistic schoolteacher who reminds Estelle of the young Primus. It is Viney’s suggestion that Ursa reconcile with Lowell, combined with the Triunion memorial to Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe—slave rebellion heroes about whom Ursa has spent twelve years of her life trying to write—that makes Ursa realize the importance of black men and black women together.

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