Reading Writers of Color 2021 Challenge
January: By a woman of color.
Paule Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke Brooklyn, New York. Her father had Caribbean roots and left the family when Paule was a child, but the themes of the Caribbean run through her work. She studied at Hunter College, planning to go into social work. But she switched her major to English literature. Her first novel was Brown Girl, Brownstones. She received numerous awards during her career, including a MacArthur Fellowship. She also taught writing workshops at several universities. Her book, Praisesong for the Widow, was published in 1983 and won a National Book Award.
Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall
Avey Johnson—a black, middle-aged, middle-class widow given to hats, gloves, and pearls—has long since put behind her the Harlem of her childhood. Then on a cruise to the Caribbean with two friends, inspired by a troubling dream, she senses her life beginning to unravel—and in a panic packs her bag in the middle of the night and abandons her friends at the next port of call. The unexpected and beautiful adventure that follows provides Avey with the links to the culture and history she has so long disavowed.
I’m not sure why I picked this one up, but something about it caught my eye. Maybe it was the unusual title. Mine had a different, less vibrant cover. The one I shared captures more about the story. So I don’t think it was the cover. Or maybe it was the book description. I read some heavy books last year, and I think something about an “unexpected and beautiful adventure” sounded appealing to me.
At its heart, this is a book about a woman who should be at ease and enjoying this more relaxed, affluent stage of her life. She has no responsibilities, no stress. But as she sails on her big white ship across the Caribbean, she realizes that she has no roots anymore either. She feels adrift, no anchor, no ties, and no sense of who she is anymore.
She begins to remember how it all started, as a child with her great-aunt, as a newlywed couple with a dashing young husband, then as an overburdened young mother with a workaholic husband. And slowly, as her journey continues, she rediscovers who she was, and who she still is.
I loved this book. I typically struggle with too much metaphor and magical realism. I’m not even sure that’s how I would describe this book. I see bits of stream of consciousness, which I thought I hated. But it reads more like a dream or a memory, then drops back into reality. Maybe it’s because the entire book is so short, only 256 pages, but I just could not put it down. By the time Avey get to the end of her journey, my heart was so full. This is my first 5 star read of the year and I am already predicting it will be the most beautiful book of the year.