E(sther) M(asserman) Broner Leah Napolin - Essay

Leah Napolin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [Her Mothers,] the story of Beatrix Palmer, who "would know only heroic women," Broner has created a bitter, fearless, and uproariously funny work about the birth, nurturance, and rebirth of all women, about the shaping and misshaping of the people we are. It's a gentle book and yet a savage one, written in white heat as if demons were tweaking her funny bone. (p. 105)

Beatrix becomes a writer and researches the lives of women, both eminent and obscure … whose words inspire, but whose lives are abject lessons in self-defeat, or object lessons in survival. Survivors, Beatrix decides, will be her true mothers.

Beatrix picks and chooses carefully among her historical mothers … to capture the magic that controls destiny. But she fails tragically in relating to her own daughter. With the predictability of a genetic code, our parents maim us, we maim our children. When Lena runs away, Beatrix pursues her.

In episodic, kaleidoscopic fashion we follow Beatrix's journey….

The search takes Beatrix to Israel, land of Biblical matriarchs. As heroic role-models, the matriarchs are profoundly disillusioning. Broner's re-creation of the Genesis tales of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah is an outrageous, salutary marvel. Surely some demon must have perched upon the author's hand as she wrote of the Old Testament as the "Old Testicle."…

The gift for laughter and outrage allows Broner not only to put the wrongs of the past in perspective, but to reorder values determining the future….

At the end it is Lena who finds Beatrix, who seeks her out living in a Florida retirement home, who demands the final confrontation in this love-hate relationship. In a swimming scene of elemental terror, there emerges in Beatrix a momentary impulse to drown this demon flower child, and she almost does, but the tale ends on a note of reconciliation. Broner saves her best, which is very good indeed, for a moving and powerful climax. As only the greatest of brujas [sorcerers] can do, she has vanquished her demons. (p. 106)

Leah Napolin, "Demons Tweaking Her Funny Bone," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. V, No. 1, July, 1976, pp. 105-06.