The Women of Brewster Place | Study Guide

Gloria Naylor

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The Women of Brewster Place | Dawn | Summary

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Summary

Shortly before the end of World War I, Brewster Place is born, the product of shady, back-room deals between a city politician and a real estate company director. It is a housing project built on worthless land in an already crowded district of an unnamed urban hub. In spite of its unfortunate beginning, there is a brief glimmer of hope for Brewster Place. The surrounding city is growing and prospering, which suggests the street and its residents may prosper, too. That hope is snuffed out when a wall is built, cutting off the street from the city's main thoroughfare. Brewster Place becomes a dead-end street, both literally and figuratively.

Several waves of tenants call the four double-housing units home. First are the "patriotic boys ... on the way home from the Great War." They are followed by a wave of "dark haired and mellow-skinned" Mediterraneans. Separated by the wall, the lives of these immigrants parallel the general life of the city but bear little resemblance to it. The people have "their own language and music and codes."

During the Great Depression (1929–39), Brewster Place is finally paved with the help of the era's Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs (1939–43). During World War II, the mothers of Brewster Place see their sons go off to fight and many do not return. The remaining Mediterraneans grow old or move away.

As Brewster Place itself ages and falls into decay, a new generation of migrants arrive. They are African Americans fleeing the "starving southern climates" to make a new life in the North. This isolated urban outpost is a last stop for many. With no place else to go, these "Afric'" people breathe new life into the community, especially the women, who mill about "like determined spirits among its decay, trying to make it a home." They are as "different in their smells, foods, and codes" as the Mediterraneans they are replacing. And each of these women has a story.

Analysis

An epigraph to The Women of Brewster Place by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes precedes the prologue "Dawn." It asks an essential question at the core of the seven lives that will be explored in the novel: "What happens to a dream deferred?" What are the results when a person's dreams are delayed or ignored? The disheartening outcomes suggested by the poet are echoed in the stories that follow. This same epigraph was used in Lorraine Hansberry's powerful play A Raisin in the Sun—the first play by an African American playwright to be produced on Broadway.

The prologue "Dawn" and the epilogue "Dusk" create a metaphorical day that frames the novel's seven stories. The prologue establishes the origins and nature of the novel's main setting, Brewster Place. Gloria Naylor's description of its "birth" personifies the housing development and casts it as a "bastard child" that was "conceived" by unscrupulous men. Their clandestine meetings labor toward "consummation of their respective desires." The completed project is then "baptized," despite its questionable parentage. These shady origins foreshadow the street's bleak future. When a wall goes up, blocking the street and figuratively cutting off the lifeblood of Brewster Place, the neighborhood's slide into poverty and decay is guaranteed. Nevertheless, Brewster Place houses and nurtures as best it can three generations of "children" before it dies.

The diverse waves of people who call Brewster Place home reflect defining moments in history and demographic shifts in population within the United States. At the end of World War 1, the community gives shelter to returning soldiers. In time, they are replaced by the "Mediterraneans," from are among the people flooding into the country from eastern and southern Europe until restrictive quotas halt the flow in 1925. The sons of these immigrants grow up to join a new generation of soldiers serving the country in World War II. Then the civil rights era ushers in the last demographic shift in tenants, and Brewster Place becomes home to African Americans migrating up from the South.

"Dawn" introduces a singular character: Ben. He is the first black resident of Brewster Place and serves as the janitor and handyman for the buildings. Like the wall, he becomes "a fixture" of Brewster Place and will play a pivotal role in the wall's destruction.

The final sentence in "Dawn" defines how the stories that follow will unfold. As they reveal the distinct life journeys that bring seven women to Brewster Place, each woman "in her own time and with her own season" will claim the spotlight. In their shared time at Brewster Place, these women's lives will touch, and bonds of love and friendship will form to help them survive life's harsh realities.

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