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Praisesong for the Widow Paperback – April 16, 1984
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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.
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Very interesting story. Gives us a picture of another world and deals with the need to go back to find your roots in order to know who you reallly are.Published 9 months ago by MEWH
Ordered the book on a saturday, it was in my mail box by wednesday! Excillent condition, shrink rapped, and never used even though the book is 25 years old!Great book seller! Read morePublished on October 21, 2010 by Jessica
This book was surprisingly boring. Paule Marshall's one of my favorite writers, but this book didn't do it for me. The pace was too slow and too many pieces didn't tie together. Read morePublished on October 21, 2008 by Keisha
Although this book is written in a different style than I expected.(The going back and forth between past present and future will get you lost if you're not careful)I believe it... Read morePublished on May 20, 2007 by Jacque Cartwright
Avey Johnson - a black, middle-aged, middle-class widow given to hats, gloves, and pearls - has long since put behind her the Harlem of her childhood. Read morePublished on October 19, 2006 by cortezhill