Bryan Alexander's Reviews > The Women of Brewster Place

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
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bookshelves: lit, gender, historical-fiction

I read The Women of Brewster Place for a very particular reason. My son, 17, was reading it for his high school English class, and was deeply affected by the book. He found it enormously depressing, like many of the books he's had to read. I'd known of Brewster Place for years, but hadn't read it, and, as a recovering English professor, decided to remedy that while helping my son think through the novel.

He was right. It is a massively sad novel.

The Women of Brewster Place is about what the title describes, the lives of a group of women living in a shared block. They are black women, and (with one exception) very poor. Almost programmatically the novel articulates the suffering they experience under those three conditions of gender, race, and class. Their experiences stretch across the 20th century, and illustrate enough periodic themes to make this a historical novel: the Great Migration of southern blacks to the north; 1960s black radicalism; the appearance of a black middle class; post-WWII urban decay; Great Society social programs.

Yet these historical and social themes are not what strikes the reader right away. The Women of Brewster Place is rather a set of interlinked biographical short stories. Each story shows each woman in the present day, on Brewster Place, while diving into their backstory to show how they came to live there. So we see the oldest character, Mattie, moving into an apartment, then a long flashback to her teenage years of isolation, family, pregnancy, and flight. The shortest story is about the confrontation between a young radical and her middle-class mother, sketching their very different trajectories and experience of family.

These stories connect with each other through shared characters. We see Mattie as the subject of the first story, for example, then she appears as a supportive maternal character in several others. Kiswana, the political radical, appears in Cora Lee's story to point her and her children towards Shakespeare. And in the final main chapter every (surviving) character comes together for a block party, climaxing in a surrealist scene of demolishing a wall that keeps Brewster Place (and, symbolically, its people) from the mainstream of life.

Framing the stories is a very short pair of chapters about the city block. I find few people address these, so wanted to dwell on them for a moment. These are lyrical and bitter pages, showing the creation of Brewster Place through corruption and cruelty. The first paragraph is a nearly dystopian analysis of harsh, sad politics, including bribery, personal defeat, and buried secrets, all told in sexual innuendo. The final pages show Brewster's post-main-narrative decline into what it refers to as a living death, "dying but not dead" (191). "So Brewster Place still waits to die" is the book's last line. This is not a place of nostalgia, beyond the sense of shared pain. Brewster Place is a horrible space, a zone mostly of failure, cruelty, and disaster. Moreover, the final paragraph shows us the block doesn't let go of people once they leave:
[T]he colored daughters of Brewster, spread over the canvas of time, still wake up with their dreams misted on the edge of a yawn. They get up and pin those dreams to wet laundry hung out to dry, they're mixed with a pinch of salt and thrown into pots of soup, and they're diapered around babies. They ebb and flow, ebb and flow, but never disappear. (192)
Setting aside the few moments of joy, this means the horrors and shames of Brewster haunt its survivors, and are spread further by them. The end. What a nightmare! This is a novel of trauma un-healed, akin to a horror or war narrative. It is not optimistic or inspirational. It is at best about surviving.

It is very well written. Naylor has a fine ear for dialog, attuned to regional differences. And she offers some fine descriptive passages, like the scene of Mattie's seduction, or Cora Lee's family transitioning from massive dysfunction to delighted Shakespeare audience, or the rousing church service.

Let me say a word about economic class. The Women of Brewster Place is about poor folks, no matter what bad book jackets say. The characters are usually born poor and do not rise. The American dream is floated by a couple of desperate men, briefly, but they don't realize it, nor does anyone else. For 1983 this books speaks well, sadly, to the 21st-century's environment of decreasing class mobility.

Naylor describes poverty with solid details throughout. There's no romanticization. Rooms are cramped, food is basic (if there at all), clothes few, scents often unpleasant. School is at best a hope for marginal improvement, if present at all. Work is not ennobling nor hopeful, but just a thin rope to cling to for survival. Work doesn't bring people together for social action; indeed, political activity is just a brief chimera. Kiswana's plan for a rent strike comes to nothing. Brewster Place is a grinding, dead-end space.

We only see brief glimpses of non-poor folks. Kiswana's parents are middle class, her mother appearing for a few pages to try talking the daughter out of living poor. One family pimps out their daughter to a rich white man - for years! - to eke out subsistence wages. Brewster Place's superintendent is complained about, but never appears, nor does he change his ways. The wealthy wheelers and dealers who made the block are referenced in a couple of pages. In short The Women of Brewster Place is about a two-tier society, with a stark gulf between classes. Again, this might be prescient for the 21st century.

About race: the preceding makes this sound like a novel about racism, and that's true to a structural extent. But racial prejudice doesn't take up many words in The Women of Brewster Place. The black characters largely live in a space without white people, and rarely address racism. They are more likely to blame bad things (poverty in particular) on each other and themselves, than on racially-inflected inequality.

About gender: this gynocentric novel's focus is one a group of women and their relationships, especially with other women. Traditionally-considered women's work is what these characters do: food preparation, child-rearing, clothes washing, housework. One character is a teacher, presumably K-12. Those areas are where the women take pleasure: a good meal, lovely clothing, beloved children.

Families are the opposite of the 1950s nuclear family. The Women of Brewster Place is not about two-career power couples. Many of the women are on their own, or rearing children without partners. Caring for children is usually draining on balance, exhausting more than rewarding; one mother parents her son badly enough to cause his criminality, it seems. The most comfortable family unit is a lesbian couple, who promptly meet a bad fate.

Speaking of bad fates, men are pretty thoroughly rotten in this novel. They fall into several categories: randy guys who have sex then disappear; men who abandon their women; bad fathers; rapists; criminals. Most are extremely violent, especially towards women. One male character is possibly the least bad - he's a drunk, obsessed with his own weakness and failure, and ultimately meets a bad, tragically wrong end. The Women of Brewster Place is a powerful argument for female separatism, with the women only finding some measure of potential goodness in each other's company.

I finished the book with a powerful sense of dread. The novel struck me like a wartime journal or a horror tale. I can definitely see why my son found it so powerfully sad. I'm not sure if he can appreciate its novelistic skills, but hope this review helps.
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Reading Progress

February 24, 2016 – Started Reading
February 24, 2016 – Shelved
February 24, 2016 – Shelved as: lit
February 26, 2016 –
page 130
67.71% "I'm impressed by this in many ways so far, but man! is it terribly sad.\n \n My son (17, reading it for English class) said it depressed him too much. I wanted to cheer him up by reading it with him, but it's even sadder than he described."
February 27, 2016 – Shelved as: gender
February 27, 2016 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
February 27, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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Jenny (Reading Envy) How wonderful that your son has to read Naylor in high school! The only other person I know to have Naylor for required reading went to a Quaker boarding school in PA. She recommended Mama Day, which is more of a magical, southern island tale.

Bryan Alexander That's one I was hoping to get to, actually.

But Owain ultimately disliked this book. He's very empathetic, so the continuous parade of horror, humiliation, and powerlessness really got to him.

Also, no happy ending, no way out.

message 3: by Patty (new)

Patty It has been years since I read Naylor and this book. Thank you for the excellent review and the reminders about how powerful this book is.

I understand why your son found it sad and I remember this novel as powerful. Unfortunately, little has changed since Naylor wrote the book in 1982. That is the saddest part, for me.

Bryan Alexander Patty wrote: "It has been years since I read Naylor and this book. Thank you for the excellent review and the reminders about how powerful this book is.

I understand why your son found it sad and I remember thi..."

Thank you for those kind yet sobering thoughts, Patty.

Lauren Bryan, thank you for this review. Well-structured and with so many thoughtful points. Although the book is massively sad, as you mentioned, I am glad that your son and his classmates read this book in school.

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