Praisesong for the Widow

by Paule Marshall

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall was first published in 1983. The novel follows Avatara "Avey" Johnson, a widow from North White Plains, New York. Avey is the mother of three daughters, who (with the exception of one) support their mother taking cruises in order to distract herself and recover from the death of Avey's husband several years ago.

In one of the novel's many vivid flashbacks, Avey remembers her husband's funeral as follows:

That final day she had simply stood, her gaze off to one side, waiting for the funeral director stationed next to her to lead her away after the proper interval. Then, just as she felt his slight pressure on her arm, signaling that it was time, she had gathered together her courage and glanced down. And there it had been, as she had feared, staring up at her from Jerome Johnson's sealed face: that other face with the tight, joyless look which she had surprised from time to time over the years. Jerome Johnson was dead, but it was still alive; in the midst of his immutable silence, the sound of its mirthless, triumphant laughter could be heard ringing through the high nave of the church.

The above passage is one of the first in which the idea (prevalent in the novel) of Jerome "Jay" Johnson's two identities is made palpable. This moment of remembrance is also a formative, if painful, moment in Avey's grieving process.

At the beginning of the novel, Avey decides that she needs to leave the cruise early. When Avey takes refuge in a bar during a walk along the beach in Grenada, the barkeep convinces Avey to join him on "excursion" to the small neighboring island of Carriacou, where those born on the island return once a year. On Carriacou, Avey is welcomed to participate in the island's traditions and rituals. She describes the music that night as follows:

And the single, dark, plangent note this produced, like that from a deep bowing of the cello, sounded like the distillation of a thousand sorrow songs. For an instant the power of it brought the singing and dancing to a halt—or so it appeared. The theme of separation and loss the note embodied, the unacknowledged longing it conveyed summed up feelings that were beyond words, feelings and a host of subliminal memories that over the years had proved more durable than the history with its trauma and pain out of which they had come. After centuries of forgetfulness and even denial, they refused to go away.

This quotation describes Avey's experience at the Big Drum festival, which provides Avey with a transformative experience of healing and belonging. On the island, Avey confronts the bittersweet aspects of African history and recognizes her place in it.

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