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Praisesong for the Widow Paperback – April 16, 1984

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Editorial Reviews


Throwing into suitcases all she brought with her on this Caribbean cruise, Avey Johnson knows she has to go home. She wonders why she has been dreaming of her childhood, of the months of August spent on a small island with her great-aunt. Were these dreams of the Shout Ring and her great-aunt's stories of the slave ships from Africa causing the knots in Avey's stomach? Then, forced to wait overnight in Grenada for the plane home, Avey loses herself in memories of her marriage. It had been a "successful" marriage, taking her from Harlem to Brooklyn to White Plains, New York. But now she feels that her and her late husband's financial gains were made at the cost of their history and passion for life. The next morning, as she walks on the beach in a dream-like trance, emotionally drained from her night of memories, she encounters a man about to leave on his annual trip to his native island of Carriacou. His dancing the Juba dance triggers Avey's memories, and she is talked into going with him. On Carriacou, sixty-five-year-old Avey touches again the feelings of her family, her heritage, and comes to understand, in new ways, traditions she has long forgotten and the importance of knowing - and remembering - her past. -- For great reviews of books for girls, check out Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. -- From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Holly Smith

About the Author

Paule Mashall is the author of Brown Girl, Brownstones, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, Praisesong for the Widow, Soul Clap Hands and Sing, Reena and Other Stories, and Daughters. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she is now Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Plume; Reissue edition (April 16, 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452267110
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452267114
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #136,656 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Jacob Baldassini on December 11, 2002
Format: Paperback
...The occasionally brilliant wording and the solid characterization make Avey Johnson an engaging protagonist. Her journey from a confused, troubled widow on an expensive cruise to a liberated woman with deeper understanding of her cultural and familial heritage make this book worth reading. This journey is interspersed with recollections of her relationship with her dead husband. This allows the reader to empathize deeply with her plight.
On a Caribbean cruise, Avey Johnson begins to have symptoms of both mental and physical illness. Driven by needs she doesn't understand, she leaves the cruise and finds herself adrift in a tide of Patois-speaking islanders, who are all intent on a cultural pilgrimage to a neighboring island. Her meeting with an island patriarch draws her into the pilgrimage as well. There, she learns that this is the culture she abandoned at the same time she abandoned her working-class roots.
The flashbacks to her life with her husband Jay not only chronicle her life preceding the cruise but also give a greater understanding of Avey as she throws herself headlong into a mysterious journey of self-discovery. The greater familiarity with the character is one of the book's strongest points.
The reason the book only rates four stars is that its symbolism makes it inaccessible when simply read for pleasure. This is not an offense worthy of a whole star, so my actual rating is four and a half stars, or 90%.
The symbolism sprinkled throughout the book does provide constant rewards, though- like Shakespeare, you can never finish gaining new insight through re-reading.
I feel confident in recommending this book to anyone who enjoys character-driven fiction. The symbolism was made apparent to me, as I read the book as part of a writing course. With that in mind, use only as directed.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 1, 1999
Format: Paperback
This is a sensitive and introspective account of a woman coming to terms with her husband's death and her own independance. It's a shame that we don't hear Marshall's name as often as we do Walker's, Morrison's. We hear more about Terry McMillan's vapid and superficial writing than we do about a really talented writer like Marshall!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on January 21, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A widow for four years, Avey Johnson has stanchly held herself up, living in the suburbs of New York City, lonely and adrift yet mostly conforming to the expectations of her friends, associates, and three daughters. While on a cruise in the Caribbean, however, she is troubled first by a dream and then by a comprehension of the vacuity of the experience (not to mention the insistent demands of her friends to have fun, damn it), including an epiphany of sort when confronted by a peach parfait in the artificial environs of the appropriately named Versailles Room. To the angry dismay of her farcically domineering friends, she leaves the ship for good at the port of the next island, fully expecting and intending to take the next plane back to New York. But her moment of resolution leads to an emotional collapse, and in Grenada her adventures (and misadventures) truly begin.

Marshall intersperses flashbacks from Avey's marriage and memories from her childhood with scenes from her impulsive flight to Grenada and her equally spontaneous escape with a group of complete strangers to the offshore island of Carriacou. What becomes apparent to the reader, as well as to Avey, is that she has lost touch with who she is and where she came from: not only with her South Carolina roots and her days as a young adult in Harlem and on Halsey Street in Brooklyn, but also with the African heritage that her aunt had often urged on her as a child. It is not simply that she has become "too white" but rather that the process of assimilation into an unquestioning and comfortable suburban life has made her not much of anything at all.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Lily B on December 24, 2000
Format: Paperback
"She even thinks that up in heaven / Her class lies late and snores,/ While poor black cherubs rise at seven / To do celestial chores." --"For a Lady I Know" by Countee Cullen
The Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen speaks of a creature of leisure in his short poem, "For a Lady I Know"--the type of person who expects those of an African-American heritage to handle matters of work even unto death. Jerome Johnson, the husband of the staid protagonist of Paule Marshall's _Praisesong for the Widow,_ Avey Johnson, lives the reality of Cullen's words. The industrious Jerome labors beneath an Irish supervisor who allows Jerome to do all the work in the department store they both work in, while the supervisor takes the credit. Jerome expresses his dismay about this in an argument he has with Avey one evening, in which she accuses him of cheating on her in the long hours he spends away from the home. He cries: "Okay, you go take my job at the store then! Go on. Go on down there and see how you like working for some red-faced Irishman who sits on his can all day laughing to himself at the colored boy he's got doing everything" (105)
When Jerome is young, newly married to Avey and living on Halsey Street, he is aware of the pressures of race working at the department store in the shipping room. Not only does he organize the store's floor so that it is efficiently run during its opened hours, he also stays after work late, slaving in the storeroom to ensure that the store will be smoothly operating during the next day. Jerome's supervisor realizes that Jerome runs shipping and receiving, although "[Jerome has] to be careful not to make it appear so" (92). This truth is known throughout the store, even to the salesgirls who secretly admire Jerome's work ethic and charm.
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