Maud Martha is a young black woman growing up in America during the 1930s and 40s. Her life is presented as relatively ordinary for a woman of her age and race during this era of American history (before the civil rights movement). She experiences racism from whites and even encounters prejudice from other black people as a result of her dark skin color, including her own family. As a child, she also recognizes how she's even begun to internalize this racism when a white boy comes to her home and she feels something akin to gratitude, as though he's doing her a favor. She is sickened by this feeling.
She has the typical kinds of dreams that people have: as a young woman, she imagines a polished and fancy life in New York City; later, she longs to marry and be "cherished," and she hopes for a "swanky" apartment and lots of friends to entertain. Many of the things that Maud Martha hopes for, however, never come to fruition. She never gets to New York. She does marry, but she does not seem to be cherished by her husband, Paul, who she's aware married her because she is "good enough." They live in a small apartment and never really entertain. Her mother even tells Maud Martha that her sister, Helen, doesn't like to visit because it "'sort of depresses her.'" Despite her disappointments and the cards which are stacked against her by a racist society, Maud Martha finds a way to make her life meaningful and beautiful, like a dandelion—her favorite flower. It may be "everyday," but it can still have an understated beauty. Brooks's poetic writing style adds to this effect significantly. Maud Martha learns to protect her daughter's innocence, to find hope and self-worth from small events (like allowing a caught mouse to live rather than killing it). In this way, Maud Martha creates a beautiful, even poetic, life out of situations that might, otherwise, seem less than lovely.
Maud Martha is a collection of thirty-four short episodes from a young woman’s life. Beginning when she is seven years old, the loosely structured novel traces her childhood, youthful aspirations, dating, and eventual marriage and motherhood. With each chapter, Gwendolyn Brooks creates a poetic description of Maud’s interior and exterior worlds, weaving the details of her South Side Chicago neighborhood skillfully into each vignette. Maud’s youth is spent feeling second rate, thanks to her sister’s self-absorption and the obvious favoritism her parents and brother show for Helen. Weary of the competition, Maud decides that her best contribution to the world is to be a “good Maud Martha,” thereafter a characteristic she hones. She never forgets the slights, however, thinking back in adult years to the injustices she suffered as a girl. Brooks uses flashbacks to illustrate this abiding and painful memory.
The novel covers a number of years, during which Maud grows up and leaves home to make a life with Paul Phillips in their roach-infested apartment. After she is married, her days are spent reading and watching the fascinating individuals who live in her building. Eventually, she has a baby whom they name Paulette. Soon she finds herself changing diapers, making baking-powder biscuits, and ironing aprons. Longing for intellectual stimulation, she attends lectures at the university alone; occasionally, she convinces Paul to go with her to a motion picture or musical production. Life, she thinks, can be disappointing, a series of unfulfilled cravings.
Maud Martha believes that people must have something to lean on, which is, in itself, a difficult job. She speculates upon the experiences in life that could provide the “post” for this leaning. Considering marriage, love, and nature as possibilities, she rejects each and comes to the conclusion that life is indeed one long search for something to lean on; the novel...
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