brewster placeI’ve always loved African-American female writers (I went through a Terry McMillan phase, toting Waiting To Exhale around high school, a Zora Neale Hurston phase, but especially Tell My Horse, her book about Haitian voodoo, and so on), but I’d never gotten around to reading The Women Of Brewster Place (although I’m pretty sure I read Naylor’s Mama Day).

I first heard of it at 10, when the 1989 TV miniseries came out, starring Oprah Winfrey and (huzzah!) Jackee Harry. As a devotee of 227, anything with La Harry caught my eye, and I remember begging my mom to let me watch it.

I don’t remember being able to follow it, although the finale, where the women tear down the wall that’s turned Brewster Place into a dead-end, really moved me. It was then–and still is, in the book–a powerful image: a community of African-American women rising up together to pull down a symbol of oppression.

I couldn’t put this book down. It was a quick, accessible read with a lot of power behind it, but it lacked a certain element that would’ve truly made it exceptional: “soaring prose,” as my grad school friend Stefan always said. Gloria Naylor’s a talented writer (and won the National Book Award for First Fiction with this one), but her writing is a little flat: instead of lifting you up with poetry, she prefers to glide closer to earth with characters and action carrying the weight. Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that I can’t fall in love with her writing. But, we can go out every so often for coffee, which is better in some ways!

The book’s fantastic, though, and is broken up into seven stories (with an opener “Dawn” and a closer “Dusk”).

  • Mattie Michael – A farm girl who gets pregnant and is sent away to live in the city. Her son grows up sheltered and selfish…with tragic results for them both.
  • Etta Mae Johnson – Mattie’s friend, a flashy, sexually self-confident woman who’s made a living off dating the right (and wrong) men. She makes one last attempt to nab a prestigious marriage, but meets her match.
  • Kiswana Browne – A young radical from a wealthy family who’s working to organize a neighborhood association, and struggling to reconcile her beliefs with what she perceives as the selling-out of her black Republican parents.
  • Lucielia Louise Turner – An abused wife whose husband’s cruelty forces her to seek an abortion…and who suffers another, even greater loss.
  • Cora Lee – Obsessed with babies, she has an enormous amount of wild kids with rotten teeth and truancy issues, she is temporarily inspired to become a better mother and person by Kiswana, but can’t break the cycle.
  • The Two – A lesbian couple–one shy, one bold–who draw the ire of a nosy neighbor, and (horrifically) the violence of some young thugs.
  • The Block Party – The death knell for Brewster Place sounds when the neighborhood women, assembled for a fundraising party, break down during a freak rainstorm, unleashing their frustration and fury with the pain and unfairness of their lives by tearing down a wall.

The lives of these women is mirrored by Brewster Place itself: a once-prosperous apartment building, that with age, neglect and the efforts of the wealthy city council, is left to struggle with no resources other than its denizens. Their stories give the book its power: Mrs. Browne’s speech about why Kiswana was given her birth name, Melanie; Etta Mae realizing that her friendship with Mattie was a love that wouldn’t betray her; Cora Lee’s brief glimpse of salvation for herself and her children.

They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place. They came, they went, grew up, and grew old beyond their years. Like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.