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 abortion and then indirectly causes the death of their first child, Serena. After that, Eugene is no longer welcome.
Mattie also takes in her old friend Etta Mae Johnson, a femme fatale who has lived the high life with various men around the country but whose beauty is now fading. Etta Mae has hopes of marrying a good man and settling down, and she sets her sights on a charismatic preacher. The preacher, however, turns out to be a sleazy womanizer interested only in using her for a one-night stand.
It is somewhat difficult to feel sorry for Etta Mae, as she has been using men all of her life, just as it is somewhat difficult to sympathize with another of the seven women, Cora Lee. Cora Lee has loved babies from the day she was born and started having them as soon as she was able; now the number is up to seven, and assorted anonymous men continue to share her bed.
The other three women have arrived at Brewster Place more or less voluntarily. Kiswana Browne is an ardent but naïve social reformer who grew up amid the affluence of nearby Linden Hills; Brewster Place offers plenty of opportunities for her. Lorraine and Theresa are lesbian lovers who hope to find a private retreat in Brewster Place, but it is not to be. They are spied on by the old prude Sophie, who tries to stir up the street against them. The most brutal scene in the novel occurs when Lorraine is viciously raped by C. C. Baker and his alley-dwelling youth gang.
Naylor saves some of her strongest description for these young men, who “always moved in a pack” because they “needed the others continually near to verify their existence” and who, “with their black skin, ninth-grade diplomas, and fifty-word vocabularies . . . continually surnamed each other Man and clutched at their crotches, readying the equipment they deemed necessary to be summoned at any moment into Superfly heaven.” The only halfway decent man in the whole novel is old Ben, the wino janitor who befriends Lorraine and is later killed by her when she becomes crazed.
Thus, the Brewster Place community gains its strength...
(The entire section is 3,157 words.)