The Women of Brewster Place | Study Guide

Gloria Naylor

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The Women of Brewster Place | Plot Summary

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Brewster Place is an urban housing project built in 1918 "on some worthless land in the badly crowded district" of an unnamed city. The shady circumstances under which it is conceived foreshadow its luckless future. It first becomes home to "patriotic boys ... on the way home from the Great War." They are followed by a wave of "dark haired and mellow-skinned" Mediterraneans—immigrants relegated to the fringes of society. Then a wall goes up at the end of the block, cutting off the neighborhood from the rest of the city and strangling all hope of its prosperity. Isolated and alienated from the influences of mainstream society, Brewster Place takes on its own unique ethnic personality. At the same time, it begins to grow old. Following the civil rights movement and reflecting racial shifts in the population, African Americans—a third and final wave of tenants—drift in. Many are migrants from the South. Among these new residents are seven women—the tenants whose lives are explored in the novel.

These tenants are Mattie Michael, Etta Mae Johnson, Lucielia Louise Turner, Kiswana Browne, Cora Lee, and Lorraine and Theresa, a lesbian couple. Described as "hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased," the women represent a range in age and experience. Upon moving to Brewster Place, they labor "like determined spirits among its decay, trying to make it a home." As neighbors, their lives intersect and blend, nurturing friendships form, and motherly or sisterly love becomes a source of strength, resilience, and healing.

The novel's subtitle is somewhat misleading, as the novel is divided into nine parts, not seven. The prologue ("Dawn") introduces Brewster Place itself, detailing how the neighborhood came to be. Six chapters then examine the lives of featured characters, with chapter titles designating each story's primary character. The women's lives overlap, interlacing their stories, and they appear in supporting roles in each other's narratives. For example, Mattie Michael, as the matriarch of Brewster Place, appears in all but Kiswana Browne's featured story. In turn, Kiswana makes an important appearance in the narratives of Cora Lee and "the two"—Lorraine and Theresa. Following the individual tenants' stories, a seventh chapter ("The Block Party") unites them in a singular event, and an epilogue ("Dusk") describes the street's eventual demise.

As readers grow acquainted with the women of the neighborhood, Brewster Place becomes a microcosm of black womanhood, reflecting variations in experience across generations. Out of shared suffering the women weave valuable, powerful bonds that allow them to survive. Then, "like an ebony phoenix," they each rise, salvage the remnants of their dreams, and move on. The reference to a phoenix is an allusion to the mythical bird that—after a long life—dies in a spectacular fire and then is reborn from the ashes of its death. Thus as each woman of Brewster Place completes her story, another begins her narrative.

The Women of Brewster Place Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Brewster Place is "born" and walled off from the city.

Rising Action

2 Young Mattie Michael leaves home after becoming pregnant.

3 In time, her dreams crushed, she ends up at Brewster Place.

4 Mattie's childhood friend, Etta Mae Johnson, comes to stay.

5 Etta has a tryst with the seedy Reverend Woods.

6 Kiswana Browne's idealism collides with her mother's truth.

7 Ciel Turner suffers the death of two children.

8 Mattie's compassion brings the grieving Ciel back to life.

9 Cora Lee's visions of a better life crumble before reality.

10 Lorraine and Theresa seek a life free of homophobia.


11 Lorraine is gang-raped; driven insane, and then murders Ben.

Falling Action

12 Mattie dreams of an upcoming block party planned by Kiswana.

13 Events turn nightmarish as enraged women tear down the wall.

14 Mattie awakens to a sunlit morning on the day of the party.


15 Brewster Place, set for demolition, lives on in memories.

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