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The Women of Brewster Place (1982)
The New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1982
Ten or twelve years ago, the vanguard of the women's movement began exhorting the rest of us to pay attention to our relationships with other women: mothers, daughters, sisters, friends. How important those neglected bonds were, said representatives, how much of the actual substance of life they were. But it was hard, at first, for most women to see clearly the significance of those bonds; all our lives those relationships had been the backdrop, while the sexy, angry fireworks with men were the show.
Now, it seems, that particular lesson of feminism has been not only taken to heart but deeply absorbed. Here are two first novels in which it feels perfectly natural that women are the foreground figures, primary both to the reader and to each other, regardless of whether they're involved with men. In Gloria Naylor's fierce, loving group portrait of seven black women in one housing development and in Valerie Miner's somewhat less successful portrayal of a three-generation Irish clan, the bonds between women are the abiding ones. Most men are incalculable hunters who come and go. They are attractive-but weak and/or dangerous representatives of nature and of violence who both fertilize and threaten the female core.
Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place is set in one of those vintage urban-housing developments that black people (who are, in truth, "nutmeg," "ebony," "saffron," "cinnamon-red," or "gold") have inherited from a succession of other ethnic groups. The difference isthat while the Irish and Italians used it as a jumping-off place for the suburbs, for most of its "colored daughters" Brewster Place is "the end of the line": "They came because they had no choice and would remain for the same reason." But the end of the line is not the end of life. With their backs literally to the wall a brick barrier that has turned Brewster Place into a dead end the women make their stand together, fighting a hostile world with love and humor.
There's Mattie Michael, dark as "rich, double cocoa," who defied her overprotective father to take man who was pure temptation, almost a force of nature a Pan. Pregnant and disowned, she made the instinctive matriarchal decision (I mean that word in the mythic, not the sociological sense) to live without a man and invest all her love back into her child. Left in the lurch by the grown, spoiled son who results, she becomes the anchor for the other women of Brewster Place.
There's Etta Mae Johnson, survivor and good-time woman, who comes home to Mattie when her dream of redemption by marrying a "respectable" preacher is sordidly ended. There's Ciel Turner, whose husband, Eugene, ominously resents her fertility: "With two kids and you on my back, I ain't never gonna have nothin' . . . nothin'!" There's Kiswana (formerly Melanie) Browne, idealistic daughter of middle-class parents, who has moved to Brewster Place to be near "my people." Cora Lee, a welfare mother, likes men only because they provide babies, but she can't cope with children once they are older. She is almost lifted out of the inertia of her life by the power of art when Kiswana takes her to see a black production of Shakespeare in the park. And, finally, there are Theresa and Lorraine, lovers who embody the ultimate commitment of woman to woman and yet arouse unease or loathing in most of the other women of Brewster Place.
Despite Gloria Naylor's shrewd and lyrical portrayal of many of the realities of black life (her scene of services in the Canaan Baptist Church is brilliant), The Women of Brewster Place isn't realistic fiction it is mythic. Nothing supernatural happens in it, yet its vivid, earthy characters (especially Mattie) seem constantly on the verge of breaking out into magical powers. The book has two climaxes, one of healing and rebirth, one of destruction. In the first, Mattie magnificently wrestles Ciel, dying of grief, back to life. In the second, Lorraine, rejected by the others, is gang raped, a blood sacrifice brutally proving the sisterhood of all women. Miss Naylor bravely risks sentimentality and melodrama to write her compassion and outrage large, and she pulls it off triumphantly.
The New Republic, September 6, 1982
Like any ghetto, Brewster Place has its horrors and its desperate charms. A dead-end street, cut off from the city's main arteries by a brick wall, this neighborhood is inhabited by decaying apartment buildings, children who "bloom in colorful shorts and tops plastered against gold, ebony, and nut-brown arms and legs," and women who "pin their dreams to wet laundry hung out to dry." There are men who live here too, of course. They visit their women like nightmares, leaving behind them babies and bile. But Gloria Naylor's women, much like those of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, are daunting even in desolation. Most of them find that through laughter and companionship they can make themselves virtually impregnable.
The Women of Brewster Place is subtitled "a novel in seven stories," and Naylor has blended the lives of these distinctive characters just as fluidly as the women do in their long kitchen talks, "so that what lay behind one and ahead of the other became indistinguishable." Their personal histories share a common theme: violence and abuse at the hands of men. Adoring fathers beat their young daughters senseless and turn them out of the house when they get pregnant; lovers fracture their jaws when they burn a pot of rice; sons mysteriously change from affectionate boys to juvenile delinquents who pick them clean of money and love. But these women are astoundingly resilient. The novel's standard-bearer, Mattie Michael, holds together the lives of the others through strength of will, and it is Naylor's knowing characterization of Mattie that makes...