Praisesong for the Widow traces Avey Johnson’s journey toward self-knowledge, a process involving not only her own personal identity but also her identification with her family, her past, and her African heritage.
The novel begins in the late 1970’s, during Avey Johnson’s third Caribbean cruise. Suddenly she begins to experience an uneasy, unspecified feeling, not quite illness but a “mysterious welling up in her stomach,” “a clogged and swollen feeling.” Two additional occurrences alarm her: First, she does not even recognize herself in the dining-room mirrors one evening, and then she begins to dream again (something she had not done since 1963). In her dream, Aunt Cuney, whom she had not thought about for years, drags a resistant Avey, in high heels and mink stole, toward the Ibo Landing in Tatem. This dream (so real that Avey’s wrists are sore the next morning) and her vague sick feelings convince Avey that she must leave the ship, and she disembarks at Grenada to await the first flight back to New York.
In a second dream at the hotel, Avey’s dead husband appears to her, accusing her of wasting their money by forfeiting fifteen hundred dollars in leaving the cruise early. Money had become “the whole of his transubstantiated body and blood.” That and his tone of voice remind Avey of a night in 1945 when their lives changed forever. Jay Johnson, Avey’s husband, had always been fun and affectionate. He worked hard as a department-store warehouse clerk while Avey advanced at the state motor vehicles department between her pregnancies. Avey’s third unexpected pregnancy drove a wedge between husband and wife, however; her unsuccessful self-abortion attempts and Jay’s refusal to accept responsibility for the pregnancy led to a...
(The entire section is 732 words.)