Naylor began her celebration of black women’s lives with The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories. Exhibiting the varied backgrounds and experiences of seven different women, the seven stories of its subtitle can be read separately, but they are united by their setting and by characters who reappear from one story to the next. The stories also perform a kind of counterpoint to one another, with various parallels and contrasts. However varied the courses of their lives have been, the women now share a common fate: They have all arrived at the dead-end ghetto of Brewster Place, not only a racial and socioeconomic enclave but also a dumping ground for used women.
Mattie Michael, the motherly figure on the block, grew up in Tennessee and arrived on Brewster Place via repeated betrayals by the men in her life. During her youth, one weak moment in a basil patch with the sweet-talking Butch left her pregnant, for which her father brutally beat her and kicked her out. Finding refuge first with her friend Etta Mae Johnson and then in the home of another woman, Eva Turner, Mattie devoted her life to raising and pampering her son, Basil. Basil eventually repaid her by killing a man in a tavern brawl and, after Mattie posted her house for bail, skipping town. Minus son and home, Mattie also left town and headed for Brewster Place, located in a bleak northern city resembling Brooklyn, where she feels a sense of cultural dislocation on top of her other losses.
What brings Mattie to Brewster Place specifically is a remaining personal tie there to Lucielia Louise Turner, or “Ciel,” the granddaughter of Eva Thiner, to whom Mattie is a mother in all but name. Mattie’s presence and support are needed, because Ciel’s life is devastated by her boyfriend Eugene, who is absent for long stretches and abusive when he is around. Eugene makes Ciel terminate her second pregnancy with an...
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The Women of Brewster Place is an unusual novel because of its structure. It consists of a prefatory Langston Hughes poem, a prologue (“Dawn”) and epilogue (“Dusk”), six stories featuring a character through whose eyes readers see the action unfold, and a seventh story, “The Block Party,” that brings many of the characters together in the violent destruction of a wall. The destruction, which occurs only in Mattie’s dream, is followed by a short description of the day of the block party. Naylor has described the book as a collection of interconnected short stories, but they do form a novel. The short stories, which are connected by recurring characters, concern the principal characters who come together for Mattie’s dream about the block party.
“Mattie Michaels,” the first story, concerns her seduction by Butch Fuller, by whom she becomes pregnant; her beating by her father when she will not identify Butch as the father of her child; and her betrayal by Basil, her son, who skips bail, costing her the house she had put up for bond. The story, however, also concerns Eva Turner, her benefactor; Lucielia Turner, who is reared with Basil; and Etta Mae Johnson, her friend in Rock Vale, Tennessee, and in Brewster Place. Mattie’s story concerns the events that led her to Brewster Place, and Etta’s story provides a short summary of her life, including a series of affairs, flight from the law, and her drive to Brewster Place in a stolen car. It focuses on her abortive romance with the Reverend Moreland Woods and the disillusioned aftermath....
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Gloria Naylor’s first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, won the American Book Award for First Fiction in 1983 and was made into a film. Actually a novel in seven stories, it presents a series of interconnected tales about seven women who struggle to make peace with their pasts. The allegorical setting is Brewster Place, a dead-end ghetto street whose distinctive feature is the brick wall that bottles economic and racial frustration inside. Two interdependent themes bind the stories together: the violence that men enact on women is counteracted by the healing power of community. The novel’s innovative structure is key to Naylor’s purpose. Exploring the lives of different women on Brewster Place, Naylor attempts to create a microcosm of the black female experience in America.
The microcosm consists of seven African American women representing a range of ages, backgrounds, and sexualities. The first character introduced is Mattie Michael, whose fierce love for her son twice costs her the security and pride of a happy home. Her hard-won strength becomes the force that helps other women, such as Mattie’s oldest friend, Etta Mae Johnson, and Lucielia Louise Turner (Ciel), whom Mattie helped raise. One of the most powerful scenes of the novel is the one in which Mattie saves Ciel, who loses her desire to live after the tragic deaths of her two children. Kiswana Browne is a would-be revolutionary who attempts to reclaim her African heritage and...
(The entire section is 432 words.)