Gloria Naylor’s book, The Women of Brewster Place, explores a community through the lives of several women—or perhaps it explores the lives of these women through their experience in the community. The novel is divided into seven stories, which are connected by their characters’ residence in Brewster Place. Each story focuses on a different woman, but they do overlap. Mattie and Etta knew each other growing up in Tennessee, and Cora Lee and Kiswana meet in Brewster Place. Lucielia is the granddaughter of Eva Turner, who took in Mattie and Basil. The interconnectedness of people in communities is shown through the overlap in the stories, but the separation between the stories shows that every woman has her own story that is both unique and connected to those of the women around her. Some characters in this novel, such as Mattie, end up in Brewster Place at the end of their lives because of unfortunate events, while others, such as Kiswana, live there during an intermediate period in life on their way to something better. The female characters are resilient despite hardship that threatens to break the spirit. Of the women of Brewster Place, Naylor writes, “They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased…They came, they went, grew up, and grew old beyond their years. Like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story” (5). Phoenixes live and die to live again. Like phoenixes, these women continue living after hope seems to die. Mattie continues to love after her son leaves her in her interactions with Etta and Lucielia. Lucielia is nearly broken by the constant presence of pain in her life, but Mattie baptizes her (105) and she lives again. Mattie “knew that [Lucielia’s] tears would end. And she would sleep. And morning would come” (105).
The women’s stories are connected by their common residence at Brewster Place. This emphasizes the influence of place on the relationships that one forms. Mattie Michael and her friend Etta Mae Johnson sacrifice everything, though in different ways, but both end up far from where they once imagined they would be. Mattie stores all of her hope in the future of her son, who selfishly abandons her to live out her old age alone in poverty. Etta chases all the wrong men into her twilight years to find herself staying in Brewster Place with Mattie, just as she had once given shelter to her friend thirty years before. These women do not have much left, but they do realize that they have one another. Perhaps in lieu of husbands, they are each other’s soul mates. Etta is comforted when she discovers that “someone was waiting up for her” (74). The theme of women helping women is prevalent in this novel. Mattie renews the life in Lucielia by making her confront her pain and Kiswana challenges Cora Lee to provide better for her many children. Kiswana’s mother wants only the best for her daughter and gives her money (88) and wisdom.
This novel demonstrates the importance of remembering that communities such as Brewster Place are not hopeless. The people who live in such communities are often vital and energetic, and those who are not (such as Cora Lee) may only need to be helped to see past the seeming hopelessness, lethargy, and stagnation of their situation to be motivated to change the community. Many communities in Baltimore are similar to Brewster Place in that they are no longer places to aspire to live in, but rather they are places to escape. While Jane Jacobs demonstrated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities that city planning is important to creating flourishing and safe communities, it is also important for residents to live fully and actively contribute to the life of their community.