Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640
Although it is classified as a novel, Like One of the Family does not have either the movement of plot or the change in character usually associated with that genre. Instead, Alice Childress’s work is a series of monologues, each of which is independent, even though all involve the same speaker and the same listener. This format can be explained by the fact that these monologues originally appeared separately, some of them in the newspaper Freedom, where they were called “Conversations from Life,” and others in the Baltimore Afro-American, under the heading “Here’s Mildred.” Sixty-two of the monologues were assembled for publication in book form, but there seems to have been no principle governing the order in which they were printed, other than an effort to vary the subject of discussion from one chapter to the next.
While it is not structured conventionally, Like One of the Family has its own kind of unity, achieved primarily through the use of a single voice. In each chapter, Mildred Johnson relates her experiences to Marge, her downstairs neighbor in a Harlem apartment building. Almost all these conversations take place either in Mildred’s three-room apartment or in Marge’s. Whatever the location, the pattern is almost always the same. One of the women stops in at the end of the workday or in the evening, and the two sit down, usually in the kitchen, make a pot of coffee, and visit.
In the chapter “All About My Job,” Mildred explains why this friendship is so important to her. She is black and she is a domestic worker. These two facts alone, Mildred says, “ought to be enough reason for anybody to need a friend.” She continues, “I do believe I’d lose my mind if I had to come home after a day of hard work, rasslin’ ’round in other folks’ kitchens if I did not have a friend to talk to when I got here.” Because the two friends are the same age and do the same job, and because both were reared in the South, Marge can understand what Mildred is talking about.
With Marge, Mildred can be her own person, as she can never be with her white employers. Even when she rebukes them, Mildred maintains a logical, restrained manner, in sharp contrast to the passion and anger she feels free to reveal to Marge. Although she occasionally annoys her friend and although she sometimes has to apologize for her more extravagant comments, Mildred does not feel the need to watch her words when she talks to Marge. With a white employer, Mildred must be aware of the fact that if she shows the extent of her anger, she will certainly be dismissed. Thus the action of the novel concerns not merely the incidents that Mildred describes but also the ebb and flow of Mildred’s emotional life, which follows a pattern of repression and release.
At the end of Like One of the Family, Mildred’s character and her situation are the same as they were at the beginning of the book. She is still working by the day, because in that way she can be more independent; when she investigates a weekly position with a single employer, she discovers that such a job would be little better than slavery. She still hopes that the civil rights battle will soon be won; however, she does not expect her own life to become very different as a result. The one change Mildred anticipates is a personal one. Throughout the novel, she has been analyzing the men she meets. In the final chapter, Mildred tells Marge that she has decided to marry Eddie, a salesman whose paychecks are uncertain but whose kindness and decency make him, in her eyes, a much better husband than many so-called good catches.