(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Praisesong for the Widow, Avey Johnson and two friends are in the midst of a Caribbean cruise, which her friends have urged upon her, when Avey suddenly feels that she cannot continue. Without explanation, she disembarks at Granada, knowing only that she must get back to her immaculate home in North White Plains, New York. Instead, she finds herself walking too far down the beach in the heat and seeks refuge in a small bar. Lebert Joseph, the lame and ancient owner, urges her to stay for an extra day to join the annual excursion to his native island of Carriacou. There, the Big Drum celebration is held to honor the Old Parents, the Long-time People: “Each year this time they does look for us to come and give them their remembrance.”

The novel reiterates Marshall’s concern with “the need for black people to make the psychological and spiritual journey back through their past.” On her journey, Avey recalls the hard but rewarding years with her husband, Jay, on Halsey Street in Brooklyn, before they moved to the respectability of White Plains. She remembers her childhood visits to her father’s great-aunt in South Carolina and the old woman’s thrilling story of Ibo Landing, of slaves who turned their backs on the New World and walked home across the sea. Lebert also reminds her of her heritage by pointedly asking her, “And what you is?” He does not mean American but rather wants to know her African tribal heritage.


(The entire section is 538 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Praisesong for the Widow, Paule Marshall explores the dynamics of the West Indian cultural landscape as well as its African heritage. The title of the novel reflects the author’s attempt to celebrate both cultural transition and African continuity.

Praisesong for the Widow is a novel of healing, as its structure emphasizes. Dedicating the work to her ancestral figure, Da-duh (Alberta Jane Clement), Marshall divides the book into four parts that delineate the journey from disease to health for those affected by the contradiction of being “old” in the “New World.”

In the first section, “Runagate,” named for African American poet Robert Hayden’s poem about the flight of a runaway slave, Avey Johnson feels the burden of being a slave to materialism when, on her annual cruise to the Caribbean, she dreams of her great-aunt Cuney. In this first section of the novel, as throughout the work, Marshall uses ritual as an opening to a hidden worldview that is antithetical to the values proclaimed by the elite of the Americas. “Runagate” recalls slavery times, when threats of corporal punishment precipitated slaves into flight.

The first section of the novel opens with sixty-two-year-old Avey Johnson, the protagonist, a black woman widowed one year previously. Avey is frantically packing her six suitcases for flight from her luxury liner, barely five days after setting sail on a two-week cruise in the Caribbean. Agitated and bewildered, she has no concrete reason to offer for her behavior. She can hardly recognize her own image in the mirror. A self-doubt triggered by her daughter’s criticism of the cruise has escalated into hallucinations after a vision of her long-dead great-aunt Cuney, who seems determined to force Avey to confront her past, her roots, and her heritage. Cuney directs Avey to the highly symbolic Ibo Landing in Tatem, which is a key to that...

(The entire section is 785 words.)