Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Wanted: One Brownstone

Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl Brownstones  VMC No. 87 (1959)

Without knowing anything of it, I chose Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones to read with Black History Month in mind (along with Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative and Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine).

It was kind of a random pick, but now I’ve got many specific (arguably better, certainly better informed) reasons to read beyond her first novel.

Selina is the Brown Girl of the title who lives in the Brownstone, with her Barbadian parents, and three other residents, in 1940s New York City.

It’s a neighbourhood that I recognize from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and countless films (which have all added up to a serious case of Brownstone love).

But perhaps there is another similarity between these two novels beyond their setting: Selina and Francie share a determined and feisty spirit.

Both girls experience injustice and struggle against convention regarding issues of sex, class (and, in Selina’s case, race, as well), and seek to find a place in a world which seems not only unwelcoming and discouraging at times, but dismissive and cruel.

The neighbourhood and the house itself, and the property it occupies, are significant and considerable time is spent sketching them and establishing their real and symbolic importance, and each of the residents who plays a role in the novel is presented full-fleshed.

I was particularly struck by this description of one resident, a white woman who lives with her daughter: “In the midst of this dust and clutter Miss Mary’s bed reared like a grim rock. She lay there, surrounded by her legacies, and holding form to the thin rotted thread of her life. Her face was as yellowed with age as the air, her eyes smeared with the same stale light.”

But even at a young age, Selina is capable of thinking of Miss Mary with compassion. She knows what it’s like to feel overlooked and is beginning to recognize that her experience of someone can be as heavily influenced by their past as the present in which they’re interacting.

She is also struck by the different, seemingly opposing, experiences that her father and mother had in Barbados, although she hasn’t yet made sense of that or unravelled the effects it has on her own upbringing and their ongoing differing experiences of life in the United States.

“It seemed to Selina that her father carried those gay days in his irresponsible smile, while the mother’s formidable aspect was the culmination of all that she had suffered. This was no more than an impression, quickly lost in the haze of impressions that was her mind at then. But it was there, fixed forever.”

She is only just beginning to understand, too, the more insidious effects of the racism that her family experiences: “”Despite his bitterness, there was a nuance, a shading of something else. A frightening acceptance, it seemed to be, which sprang, perhaps, from a conviction hidden deep within him that it was only right that he should be rejected….”

Somehow I had picked up the idea that Brown Girl, Brownstones was the sort of book I would read for study but not necessarily a book that I’d read for pleasure (I think I’ve just heard many times that Paule Marshall is an important writer) but I was wrong; I picked it up even when I really only had time to read a page or two, just to have a few more moments with these characters, and it will be a pleasure to seek out other books by this writer.

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