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Sacred FirePraisesong for the Widow is a novel full of music and dancing; it describes the sickness that occurs when we disconnect from our heritage and the healing power that comes from reclaiming the music and rhythms of the ancestors. Its hero, Avatar “Avey” Johnson, was a new character in black literature: an affluent middle-aged black woman, a mother, a grandmother, and a widow. Avey and her late husband worked hard to climb from the slums of Harlem to the comforts of suburban White Plains. But that material comfort brought with it a spiritual disease—a hard-to-diagnose but impossible-to-ignore malaise that eventually erupted into violent illness during a Caribbean vacation. In this novel, Paule Marshall traces Avey’s journey from sickness to strength, from the soulless suburbs to the African roots of her identity.
The novel opens with a curious scene: a woman throwing clothes into a suitcase. Since her husband passed away, Avey had been going on cruises with her friends from work, Thomasina and Glance. It is on a Carribean vacation that she finds herself in distress and decides to abandon the cruise. She finds herself dreaming of childhood summers spent in South Carolina with her Aunt Cuney. Aunt Cuney used to take her to Ibo Landing to do the Ring Shout, a ritual dance in honor of the Africans who were brought to the Landing to be sold as slaves. Later she dreams of her late husband who, in his drive for material success in a white world, shut their lives off from the passion and sense of community they had once shared.
The next day she runs into Lebert Joseph, an old man who listens to her concerns, diagnoses her problem, and prescribes cure: a trip to the island of Carricacou, where she undergoes a reunion with that part of her African heritage and traditions that she has allowed to lie dormant within her for so many years. On the island of Carricacou, Avey observes and eventually partici pates in rituals with the islanders. In one of their rituals, prayers and songs are followed by dances. Each nation is called on to dance, but Avey cannot join until they begin to dance the Carricacou Tramp, a dance she recognizes as the same Ring Shout she did as a child in South Carolina. With that, she is reunited with the roots of her own identity and that of her people. It is through the rituals on the island that she realizes the connective thread between the Ring Shout danced by church members, the neighborhood picnics and jazz music in Harlem, and the African origins of her people.
Praisesong for the Widow takes on a decidedly contemporary problem: the rootlessness of a generation of black women—and men—who forsook the traditions of the ancestors and the warmth of the community for a sterile and materialistic version of the American dream. In this novel, Marshall takes a character suffering from this modern dilemma and cures her by immersing her in a world of history, myth, and ritual. The novel is written so vividiy and lyrically, one can almost see Avey dancing the Ring Shout and hear the drums in tribute to the islander’s ancestors. The book won the American Book Award in 1984.