When the novel begins, Maud Martha Brown is seven. Very early on, we learn that “to be cherished was the dearest wish” of this little girl. Her story is told in a series of thirty-four short chapters in her life. In one, we see Maud Martha’s childhood school. In another, we witness her reaction to seeing her dying grandmother. In another, she awaits the visit of a white boy named Charles, and she realizes, sickeningly, that she feels “a sort of gratitude! . . . As though Charles, in coming, gave her a gift.” She goes to a show at sixteen, and she realizes that she has no interest in being “a star”; instead, she plans to “donate to the world a good Maud Martha. . . . She would polish and hone that.”
Later, Maud Martha attends her Uncle Tim’s funeral, and she is disturbed both by his “gray clay” appearance as well as her question: is “the world any better off for his having lived?” She considers the purpose of life on the earth and worries that we might not get answers about life until after we have lived it. She wonders, “Were people to get the Answers in the sky? Were people really going to understand It better by and by? When it was too late?” Later, the family almost loses their home. Maud Martha recalls being abashed when a boy named Emmanuel was more interested in her light-skinned sister; he called Maud Martha an "old, black gal.” She thinks, painfully, that “Helen was still the one they wanted in the wagon, still ‘the pretty one,’ ‘the dainty one.’ The lovely one.” Even her own family, she knows, prefers Helen, “the ranking queen.” Maud Martha does not blame them; she “underst[ands]” their preference even though it pains her.
There are beaus. She dreams of New York and of the life she wants to have. At eighteen, she imagines people on the train to NYC and “the idea of it stood for what she felt life ought to be. Jeweled. Polished. Smiling. Poised. Calmly rushing!” She seems sure “the world is waiting” for her. She meets Paul Phillips, and though she knows that he is only “thinking that [she is] all right. . . . That [she] will do,” she marries him because her “whole body is singing beside him.” They plan to “start small” with their living arrangements but have big plans to get a “swanky flat” and “entertain a lot” in time. Maud Martha remains optimistic, even when their first apartment is small, but the roaches and mice really bother her. One day, she notices that everything is gray, and this upsets her. She sets a mouse free from the trap, and she realizes that she could have preserved or destroyed a life but chose to preserve it. “'Why,' she th[inks], as her height doubled, ‘why, I’m good! I am good.’”
Maud Martha gets pregnant. One night, she sees Paul dance with some light-skinned woman, and she wants to “scratch her upsweep down.” She does not do it. She has a little girl, who is named Paulette. Maud Martha begins to acknowledge the importance of traditions; she recalls her own family’s and now wants to establish some with her daughter. She has a bit of a health scare: she overdid it with some new exercises and thinks that she has a tumor. Maud Martha understands that her husband is getting bored. He is tired of the daily life with the family, his job, and their small apartment. They have little money and no car. We learn how lean times have ensued as a result of the war; Maud Martha struggles with her chicken. She is thankful to have one but misses the good old days when better meat was available.
Her husband is laid off, and Maud Martha interviews with Mrs. Burns-Cooper for a job as a maid and tries to only “hate her just some.” Mrs. Burns-Cooper tries “to prove that she [is] not a snob” by talking incessantly about her college days, her debut, her travels, and her money. When her mother-in-law arrives, Mrs. Burns-Cooper...
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