The Women of Brewster Place | Study Guide

Gloria Naylor

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Course Hero, "The Women of Brewster Place Study Guide," September 20, 2017, accessed November 14, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Women-of-Brewster-Place/.

The Women of Brewster Place | Mattie Michael | Summary

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Summary

Mattie Michael arrives at Brewster Place on a snowy winter day. Her new home on the second floor of the last building on the block lies in the shadow of the wall. Mattie can see at a glance that the beautiful plants she has brought from her last home will not get the sun they need. Many will die on the crowded windowsill. The smell of cooking from the apartment below triggers Mattie's memories of her journey to Brewster Place.

That story begins 31 years ago in Rock Vale, Tennessee, on a hot August day when Mattie is 21 years old. On an outing to gather sugarcane and wild herbs, she is seduced by Butch Fuller, a "cinnamon-red" field hand with a reputation as a womanizer. Mattie's overly protective father, Samuel Michael, loathes Butch. Discovering she's pregnant, Mattie refuses to reveal who is responsible, fearing Sam will kill Butch. Sam is enraged and tries to beat the truth out of her until Fannie Michael, her mother, stops the violence with a shotgun blast. Soon after, Mattie leaves home and heads for North Carolina to live with childhood friend, Etta.

Etta is a wanderer, and, in a little while, she leaves Mattie alone with Basil, her newborn son. Their boardinghouse is rat infested, and one night, Basil is bitten. Mattie's desperate search the next day for a new place to live leads her to Eva Turner, who offers her and the baby shelter. Eva is elderly, blue eyed, and pale skinned enough to pass for white. She lives alone with her granddaughter, Lucielia. Over the next few years, Eva becomes very fond of Mattie and Basil and makes it possible for Mattie to buy her house after she dies.

Mattie works hard to pay the mortgage and make a good home for Basil. But her boy grows up spoiled, irresponsible, and without a conscience. When a bar brawl ends in the death of a man, Basil is charged with the murder, but he is coldly indifferent to the death he has caused. He cons his mother into putting up her house for his bail, so he can walk free while awaiting trial. When the trial date comes around, Basil disappears without warning, and the court takes Mattie's house. Homeless once again after 31 years, Mattie finds the only place left for her to go is broken-down Brewster Place.

Analysis

As first to claim the spotlight "in her own time and with her own season," Mattie Michael's story is the longest of the seven. Among the featured women of Brewster Place, she will fill the role of matriarch as well as friend, mentor, and surrogate mother. She is the backbone of the community and a constant presence in the other stories.

Mattie's narrative is told in a flashback triggered by a cooking aroma that reminds her of freshly cut sugarcane. Throughout the novel, Naylor uses sensory input to initiate memories. For Mattie, sugarcane is the smell of "summer and Papa and Basil and Butch." One whiff transports her back in time, to her youth and her home in Rock Vale, Tennessee. Naylor maps Mattie's journey to Brewster Place and establishes the strength of character she will exhibit as she builds a new life.

Mattie's story evolves in a procession of dreams and nightmares. For example, the final moments of her seduction by Butch Fuller are dreamlike as she finds herself "floating far away in the brown sea of his irises." The nightmarish beating administered by her father creates an emotional whirlwind. Mattie feels crushed as the closest relationship she has is destroyed along with "everything that had ever passed between them." Driven beyond reason by his rage, Sam had transferred his anger from the unknown seducer to his daughter's stubborn silence. Sorrow overtakes him when the shotgun blast brings him back to reality and the violence he's inflicted on his family.

In the Asheville boardinghouse, the poverty-stricken hopelessness of Mattie's situation comes to a head as a rat attacks little Basil in the night. Mattie swears she cannot stay there another night "without nightmares about things that would creep out of the walls to attack her child." Her following encounter with Eva Turner takes on the quality of a warm, safe dream, laced with the smell of well-seasoned food. On her first night at Etta's, she falls asleep enveloped by the scent of lemon oil and the feel of cool sheets—a sweet, dreamlike memory that will stay with her until she dies.

Mattie's wish is to keep her son safe and with her always. She pours her life into motherhood and creating a nurturing home for Basil. Eva Turner gently warns her that she should think about her future and broaden her horizons; that "children get raised overnight ... Then what have you got?" However, believing she has everything she needs in Basil, Mattie clings stubbornly to her fantasy. She succeeds in raising a self-centered, irresponsible man who eventually shatters that dream and sends her to Brewster Place.

While sugarcane is a metaphor for Mattie's life journey, the plants she brings to Brewster Place are a reflection of her nurturing spirit. Under her care, the plants have thrived on the sunny porch of Miss Eva's house. Mattie is saddened to know that some will not survive on the sun-starved windowsill of her apartment. Like all the residents of Brewster Place, they will have to fight for their place in the sun. With that same nurturing spirit, Mattie will reach out to the women in her community. She will become a sustaining presence in their lives; a source of love, friendship, wisdom, and strength. In the stories that follow, Mattie will always be near, either physically or in spirit. Her presence is a constant that links the stories together.

Storytelling provides another link. When Mattie and Basil are taken in by Eva Turner, the two women spend their first evening together in the kitchen, sharing their life stories. This candid exchange binds them in kinship; "blending their lives so ... what lay behind one and ahead of the other became indistinguishable." In much the same way, the lives of the women of Brewster Place will be woven together and bound in kinship by the telling of their stories.

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