Gwendolyn Brooks was a well-regarded poet: the first black
author to win the Pulitzer Prize, poetry consultant to the Library of
Congress, poet laureate of Illinois, and member of the National
Institute of Arts and Letters, among many honors. That she wrote a
novel was barely known, and indeed, the book was out of print for
nearly four decades until republication in 1993. Since then Maud Martha has gotten more and
Brooks wrote Maud Martha in an unusual style for a novel, which may partly account for its initial neglect. It is a series of 34 vignettes focusing on moments in Maud Martha’s life from childhood in the late 1920s to motherhood in the 1940s. Rather than inhibiting a full portrait of Maud, the non-plot-bound format illuminates Martha’s clever, honest, and persevering character. In one vignette, the child Maud is confused that her family members prefer her lighter-skinned sister; in another, the adult Maud, now aware of her community’s bias for a lighter complexion, believes her husband appreciates her for her goodness. Married life is not blissful, we find out in other vignettes. Maud’s husband has no sentimentality about holiday traditions, unlike her birth family, or intellectual curiosity to feed her bookish mind. Their two-room “kitchenette” apartment is a step down from the house she grew up in. Other vignettes take Maud out into the Chicago of the pre-civil rights era, and her encounters with whites allow Brooks to comment on racial relations.
With little drama but much feeling, the vignettes paint an endearing portrait of Maud and a reflection on everyday life among ordinary people trying to survive in the big, segregated city. It is written, unsurprisingly, in elegant language that blurs the distinction between prose and poetry.
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