If Linden Hills strains credulity, then the main setting of Mama Day is even more unbelievable, if not downright mythical: Willow Springs, a southern coastal island relatively unwashed by the tides of racism. The island is populated by the descendants of white slaveholder Bascombe Wade and his black wife Sapphira and of other slaves that he freed and deeded land to back in 1823. Since that time, the island has been plagued mainly by malaria, Union soldiers, sandy soil, two big depressions, and hurricanes. The fictitious barrier island lies off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia but is owned by no state. Willow Springs is a backwater of history where the people have been mostly left to themselves, and they have developed a black American culture strongly connected to the land, to their historical beginnings, and even to their African roots.
Willow Springs is a daring concept—an effort to imagine what black life might have been like in America if left free to develop on its own. Naylor acknowledges the concept’s utopian aspects by drawing parallels between Willow Springs and the magical island in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611). Yet the conjuring that goes on in Willow Springs recalls the conjuring in Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (a translation of the thirteenth century African epic published in 1965) and the good magic and bad magic still practiced in parts of Africa. Also very real are the closeness to the land, the recognized status of individuals within the community, the slow pace of life, and the presence of the past—things that rural southerners, black and white, miss when they move to northern cities.
In the novel, such a person is Ophelia “Cocoa” Day, who was born on Willow Springs and raised by her grandmother Abigail and great-aunt Miranda “Mama” Day (descendants of Bascombe and Sapphira Wade). Cocoa left Willow Springs to work in New York City, but she is drawn back to the island for regular August visits. In New York, the novel’s other setting, Cocoa meets George...
(The entire section is 846 words.)