Praisesong for the Widow

by Paule Marshall
Putnam, 256 pp., $13.95

Paule Marshall does not let the black women in her fiction lose. While they lose friends, lovers, husbands, homes, or jobs, they always find themselves. The precocious heroine of Brown Girl, Brownstones (first published in 1959, now reissued) comes of age and rejects the class aspirations of her tightly knit Barbadian community in Brooklyn. The willful teacher of The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969) is middle-aged and heading toward a sharp turn in her rocky road, one that will take her into battle with developers on her Caribbean island, and then to the unknown in Africa. The well-heeled woman approaching old age in Praisesong for the Widow finds spiritual renewal on a remote island in the Caribbean.

In exploring the stages of black women’s lives, Marshall insists that the woman with enough nerve can win even when the deck is stacked and the other players are hostile. Nerve, here, means making radical choices, and though the liberating destinies Marshall gives to her heroines are often unconvincing, the attraction of her work lies in a deep saturation in the consciousness of her characters and the ability to evoke the urban or tropical settings in which they toil. Dorothy Parker, in a review of the first novel, complained about the title. The years have not improved Marshall’s ear for titles. They are sentimental and heavy with obvious meaning. They do not do justice to the discipline of the writing or to Marshall’s engagement with questions of heritage, assimilation, and the black woman’s identity.

Marshall’s heroines tend to be stubborn, alienated, and ripe for some sort of conversion. The leap of faith is presented as a matter of making up one’s mind to heed an inner voice, whatever the cost. Unfortunately, these assured, preachy women are not as interesting as the flawed souls who surround them and hold them down. Selina Boyce in Brown Girl, Brownstones is a scraggly, bookish tomboy. We know immediately that her growing pains will be severe. Her eyes are “not the eyes of a child. Something too old lurked in their centers. They were weighted, it seemed, with scenes of a long life. She might have been old once and now, miraculously, young again—but with the memory of that other life intact.” This burdensome wisdom has come to Selina from observing her family, the boarders in the house for which her mother labors and which she hopes some day to buy, and the neighbors on Chauncey Street.

Selina hears and sees much in this place of bad and better addresses. The neighborhood was once white but by 1939, when the novel opens, the whites have “discreetly” died or moved away. “And as they left, the West Indians slowly edged their way in. Like a dark sea nudging its way onto a white beach and staining the sand, they came.” They came with ambitions for the better life. “Lord, lemme do better than this. Lemme rise!” They look down on Afro-Americans as “keepbacks” and think of themselves…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.