The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As the title suggests, Naylor’s novel is about a community of women. Naylor writes of them, “Brewster Place became especially fond of its colored daughters as they milled like determined spirits among its decay, trying to make it a home.” Although the undisputed leader of this community is Mattie, the women are presented as sisters who mentor, nurture, guide, and heal one another. With the exceptions of Kiswana and “the two,” the women are refugees from the South, women for whom Brewster Place is both a literal and a figurative dead end.

Mattie holds the community and the novel together. Hers is the first story, and her dream concludes the novel. In her story, she is impregnated by Butch, beaten by her father, and betrayed by a son she had spoiled. What she learned from Eva, her mentor and benefactor, sustains her when she loses her home and moves to Brewster Place. Naylor likens her situation to that of her plants: “All the beautiful plants that once had an entire sun porch for themselves in the home she had exchanged thirty years of her life to pay for would now have to fight for life on a crowded windowsill.” Rather than feeling self-pity, Mattie fights for life but also aids the other women in Brewster Place.

She heals Etta, but her most significant act involves Lucielia, who seems determined to die after her baby’s death. Mattie rocks her as a mother rocks a child, but the rocking transcends physical movement. It becomes a...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Mattie Michael

Mattie Michael, a strong, elderly, unmarried black woman who reared a son before moving to Brewster Place. Mattie is the pivotal character in the novel. It is her own personal tragedies—her father’s shame and rejection when he learns that she is pregnant; the loss of her son, Basil, whom she loves dearly; the loss of her worldly possessions—that make her sensitive to the tragedies of others. She is the character who breathes life and hope into the dismal atmosphere of Brewster Place. At the end of the novel, Mattie is the first to begin tearing down the wall that makes Brewster Place a literal and figurative dead end for its residents. In their symbolic protest and rage, she and the other women in the community join together to fight their condition instead of being ruled by it.

Etta Mae Johnson

Etta Mae Johnson, Mattie’s closest friend, an attractive woman who carries herself with pride. In Rock Vale, the town in which Mattie and Etta grew up, there was no place for a woman with Etta’s rebellious, independent spirit. She refused to play by society’s rules and spent most of her life moving to one major city after another, from one promising black man to another, in the hope that one of them would take care of her. Upon her return to Brewster Place, Etta learns that her friend Mattie can give her what she is searching for, things that no man has ever given her: love, comfort, and friendship.

Kiswana Browne

Kiswana Browne, formerly Melanie, a young black woman who rejects her parents’ middle-class values, changes her name, and boasts of her African heritage. She is also an activist who organizes a tenants’ association at Brewster Place. Kiswana, in her naïveté, believes that her mother is ashamed of being black because she leads a middle-class existence. Finally realizing that she and her mother are not so different, that they are both women who are proud of their heritage and who desire to improve the lot of future generations, Kiswana learns to be more tolerant to those...

(The entire section is 852 words.)