Her Own Place
In Her Own Place, Dori Sanders tells the compelling story of a determined and incredibly resourceful young black woman who rises out of appalling poverty by means of an indomitable inner strength, a sense of humor, a loyal family, and close friends. Mae Lee Barnes, Sanders’ central character; is a fine study in what it takes to succeed against all odds and overcome the economic, personal, and social hurdles faced by a black woman growing up in the Deep South during the second half of the twentieth century. With great skill, Mae Lee’s struggles and triumphs are set against the larger historical background of the often painfully slow changes in rural South Carolina after World War II.
Mae Lee’s own life quickly turns tumultuous when she is still a teenager. The outbreak of the war both speeds up and slows down her relatively sheltered life as the sole child of a family that occupies a special place in the black community of Rising Ridge. Sam and Vergie Hudson own the land that they farm; they are no sharecroppers tilling for a white landlord. Worried that all the good men will enlist and soon be gone, Mae Lee marries her high school sweetheart, Jeff Bames, the day before his departure to an army camp.
Because the war lasts four years, during which Jeff must remain abroad, Mae Lee does not need to assume immediately the expected traditional role of being a housewife and a mother. Thus, as Sanders’ story shows convincingly, the war gives her an unexpected break from the time-consuming chores life normally would hold in store. With her characteristic determination, which the reader soon comes to admire, Mae
Lee puts her free time to good use. Like her beloved mother, another of Sanders’
well-drawn, sympathetic characters, Mae Lee begins to work in a munitions factory.
Through her work, she slowly gains economic power and matures as a person.
Suddenly, she sees a wider world than she could have hoped for.
Saving her wages with an iron discipline is an act handsomely rewarded when Mae Lee is able to buy her own farmland from the white landowner Church Granger, thus laying further foundation for her economic empowerment. With great sense for the importance of the situation, Sanders sensitively describes Mae Lee’s emotional roller coaster attendant to the transaction. After deciding to enter through the Grangers’ front door, as befits a person ready for business, Mae Lee is nevertheless shy and worried that Church Granger, as his father Jay was wont to do, will cheat her. Suspense is built up carefully, until the reader shares Mae Lee’s relief when she sees how the figures add up correctly on the land purchase document.
After this momentous step forward, Mae Lee’s life becomes less happy when she is reunited with her husband. Initially pleased with Mae Lee’s gift of the land, Jeff is unwilling to become a farmer; or even a true husband. Each time one of his five children is born (in almost as many years), Jeff goes away on a binge, only to return when his money has run out. He tells his wife that he has been trying to find work in the city and insists that he would take her with him if it were not for their little children. After the birth of Amberlee, the last of them, Mae Lee calls Jeff’s bluff. Instead of gathering the family to leave Rising Ridge together as he had promised, Jeff drives away alone, never to return.
Far from becoming depressing or turning to an indiscriminate bashing of the black male, Her Own Place uses Jeff’s departure to highlight Mae Lee’s remarkable mastery of her life and shows how other men help rather than hurt her. Through characters such as Hooker Jones, who works alongside Mae Lee on her land and aids her in buying a quality used tractor; and her son Taylor; whose love for his mother shows through his occasional aloofness, Sanders is very careful to assure the reader that Jeff Barnes does not represent all males. Until Mae Lee is retired from farming, however, she is too busy to find romance again, and she rejects various offers by unsuitable suitors.
With Jeff gone for good, the narrative focuses energetically on the next stage in Mae Lee’s life, her struggles to rear her five children and farm her land. Here, Her Own Place works well on three different levels. First, individual events such as Taylor’s futile quest for his father are told as well as are passages that beautifully chronicle the daily routine of the Barnes family. On a second level, their experience...
(The entire section is 1863 words.)