Mama, McMillan’s first novel, is the story of an uneducated black woman living in the 1960’s who possesses the strength to survive and the will to hope. Mildred Peacock, the protagonist of the story, is no saint. She swears, she drinks constantly, and whenever she has a good opportunity, she lets a good-looking man have sex with her. Her capacity for violence is established in the much-quoted first sentence of the book, “Mildred hid the ax beneath the mattress of the cot in the dining room.”
As Mildred recalls the night she has just been through, it is clear that she might almost be justified in killing the man who has been her husband for the last ten years. Once again, her drunken husband has battered her, while the five children he professes to love cowered, terrified, waiting for the sounds of fighting to change to the sound of sexual intercourse. Because it is she who provides the financial and emotional support for the family, and her unfaithful husband comes home only to beat her, have sex, and father more children, Mildred finally decides that Crook is not worth keeping. She is going to get a divorce.
The rest of the novel shows how Mildred accomplishes the goal she has set for herself: to raise her children so that they will have a better life than hers. It is not an easy task. She has to deal with heartless employers, persistent rent collectors, and suspicious welfare workers as well as with her own weaknesses, particularly her needs for sex and alcohol. At one point, when her nerve pills are not enough, she has a nervous breakdown. However, she pulls herself together and rejoins the battle. At the end of the book, she sees all of her daughters settled, and she even has hopes for her prodigal son, who has sworn to stay away from the drugs that have caused him to land in prison.
In telling Mildred’s story, McMillan alternates between two points of view, that of Mildred herself and that of her oldest daughter, Freda Peacock. Even though the two characters are often separated in the second half of the novel, each is always a part of the other’s consciousness. Moreover, because mother and daughter share the same strengths, notably intelligence, determination, and an amazing capacity for hope, as well as the same weaknesses, including a susceptibility to addiction and a real talent for deluding themselves about men, the two lives often seem like one. Although it seems straightforward and simple, in fact Mama is intricately patterned and carefully choreographed, with the two main characters advancing and retreating until, at the end of the novel, they join in a touching expression of their love for each other.
Mama presents the social, communal, psychological, and individual story of Mildred Peacock and her struggles to achieve a satisfying life for herself and her children. Mildred is a resident of Point Haven, Michigan, an industrial town about ninety miles from Detroit. The novel details Mildred’s financial, romantic, and parental problems as she rears five children to adulthood. Though titled Mama, the novel is more concerned with showing one woman trying to be the best mother she can be while also trying to be the best person she can be. The opposition of these roles (mother and individual) fuels much of the tension, conflict, humor, and character development that make Mama such a success.
Set when the Civil Rights, Black Power, student protest, anti-Vietnam War, and feminist movements made their most significant cultural gains, Mama positions its protagonist’s struggle within the larger context of a rapidly changing America. Everybody is a little off balance. The setting emphasizes the turbulence and chaos that mark Mildred’s life.
Mildred’s children are relatively young during the beginning of the novel, and this period is dominated by Mildred’s finding ways to keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table, and keep utilities from being disconnected. Being sole breadwinner is difficult. She works at...
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