Book review - Maud Martha

It’s remarkable that Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel, Maud Martha (1953), has not been published in Britain until now. Brooks was an acclaimed poet and the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen.

In her introduction to this welcome, if overdue, Faber edition, Margo Jefferson suggests Brooks’s debut “sank beneath the weighty canonical force of  first novels by two of Brooks’s male Black peers”. She’s referring to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Maud Martha is a quieter, more reflective work than Invisible Man and Go Tell it to the Mountain, but nevertheless, it’s a perceptive, eloquent study of life for an ordinary, working-class black woman living in Chicago during the 1930s and 40s.

Maud Martha is presented as a series of vignettes written in third-person omniscient narration. Brooks’s poetic sensibility is evident from the outset and her narrator’s warm, idiosyncratic voice is one of the book’s many charms. She opens with Maud Martha’s childhood delight at the profusion of dandelions she sees from the family’s porch. Her description reads like the opening lines of a poem: “Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard.” The tone of the novel is set and Maud Martha’s appreciation of these simple pleasures propel the narrative. 

The casual racism of the period is ever-present, but the ironic tone and playfulness of Maud Martha’s narrative, even when pondering the inequities of class, gender and colour, ensure she never feels like a victim. In a beauty salon, while waiting for her hair appointment, Maud Martha is so shocked that a woman use the N** word, she believes she must be mistaken.She’s also modest. Maud Martha realises early on that she cannot match her sister’s beauty although “my hair is longer and thicker … I’m much smarter. I read books and newspapers and old folks like to talk with me … in spite of these things, she was poor, and Helen was still the ranking queen.” She has a couple of suitors before settling on Paul Phillips but, even then, is self-deprecating about her allure: “I am what he would call — sweet. But I am certainly not what he would call pretty.” The main reason, we discover, is the “cocoa” colour of her skin. Her “low-toned yellow” husband, she believes, would prefer someone with a lighter skin: “cocoa with a lot of milk in it”. 

“I’m glad, though, that she didn’t say it”, Maud Martha reassures herself. “She’s pretty and pleasant. If she had said it, I would feel all strained and tied up inside … I’m too relaxed to fight today. Sometimes fighting is interesting. Today it would have been just plain old ugly duty.” 

Another time, she is angered by the nonchalance of a department-store’s white Santa and his reluctance to play with her child. “Santa Claus rubbed his palms together and looks vaguely out across the Toy Department. He was unable to see either mother or child.” Later, she has to comfort her daughter: “Keep her those fairies, with witches always killed at the end, and Santa’s every winter’s lord, kind, sheer being who never perspires who never does or says a foolish or ineffective thing, who never looks grotesque, who never has occasion to pull the chain and flush the toilet.”

On occasion, Maud Martha enjoys her own small triumphs. When deliberating whether to buy a hat, Brooks imagines the shop assistant’s disgust as she contemplates her customer: “not today would she cater to these nigger women who tried on every hat in the shop, who used no telling what concoctions of smelly grease on the heads that integrity, straightforwardness, courage, would certainly have kept kinky.” Maud Martha allows the assistant to shamelessly bargain and reduce the price and then walks out of the shop, politely informing her: “I’ve decided against the hat.”

Brooks delights in the domestic and ordinary and describes Maud Martha’s ramshackle, much loved, family house, in vivid detail: The living room contains a “[n]icked old upright piano. Sag-seat leather armchair. Three or four straight chairs that had long given up the ghost of whatever shallow dignity they may have had in the beginning … a small hole in the sad-colored rug”.

Her character portraits are also spot-on. In spare, lyrical prose she introduces us to the other residents of the shabby kitchenette building Maud Martha and Paul inhabit. Kitchenettes were effectively divisions of existing apartments and extremely cramped. She also captures the immediate neighbourhood and the night spots in a few, deft brush strokes. The yearning Paul has to join the “hep” members of the Foxy Cats Club, “the club of clubs”, is palpable. As is Maud Martha’s humiliation when, pregnant, she watches Paul dance with “someone red-haired and curved, and white as a white”.

In this seminal text Brooks has created a black Everywoman. She celebrates her heroine’s resilience, but recognises the pervasive racism that would continue to challenge future generations. This is underlined by the book’s epigraph: “Maud Martha was born in 1917. She is still alive today.”  Like the humble dandelion, Maud Martha endures.

Originally published by The Critic

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