Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mama Day

It has been a long time since I've read a book purely for pleasure, even longer since it was a work of fiction. That's what working on a PhD and teaching European history courses can do to you. However, a month or so ago I promised myself that I would take some time to indulge my love of books and read something just for myself, with no view to writing a paper or teaching a class. The book I chose was one that was recommended to me by a woman on a mothering discussion board. It's called Mama Day. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and plan to build up a new TBR list (To Be Read, for those who aren't obsessive readers, don't already have such lists and have never used that particular acronym) of modern authors recommended to me by other people or those which simply catch my eye.

Mama Day was written by Gloria Naylor, an African American woman from New York writing about life on a small fictional island, Willow Springs, straddling the border between South Carolina and Georgia. The people of Willow Springs, and specifically the Day family, trace their ancestry back to a woman, whose name no one wants to mention, and the actions she took allowing her to obtain freedom from the slave owning master of the land. The book is a complex but comfortable tapestry of voices fleshing out two of the main characters and one voice that seems to embody the island, its history and the presence of Mama Day herself. The island and its people thrive on customs that are both confusing and alienating to people from “across the bridge.” The people of Willow Springs reject the idea of mainland living and adhere to their own traditions which are largely oral and dependent upon folklore.

On its most superficial level Mama Day is the tale of two people coming to terms with themselves and their personal histories in order to strengthen and support their relationship. However, were this the driving narrative of the story it would fall flat and hardly merit mention. What fuels this story is the tension between the mythical and the concrete, the traditional and the cosmopolitan, the heart and the mind.

Miranda Day, or Mama Day, the eponymous powerful lead character of the story is a woman who straddles two centuries, having been born in the previous one while thriving in the present. Although she is more than 80 years old she is easily the most powerful woman on the island mentally, spiritually and physically. She is a practiced midwife and personally delivered nearly each of the island's inhabitants. Although her midwifery is a large part of Mama Day's personality she is also known to have great strength and ability with “roots” and demonstrates her powers through her flashes of future events and the ability to call the weather at her will. This matriarchal figure is the last glue binding her family together and forcing her grand-niece, Cocoa, a woman who deserted her home and familiar way of life to live in New York, to come to terms with her heritage and open her past to her new husband, whatever the consequences.

I fear that a large portion of the deeper shades of meaning of this story have been lost on me because of my lack of familiarity with African American folklore and oral histories. Naylor draws heavily upon what could probably be called a cultural memory. That culture, fictionalized in Willow Springs, is what beats at the heart of Mama Day. Even with my lack of knowledge and understanding of the material underlining her work, I found Naylor's writing, largely imitating oral narration, colorful and the storyline compelling.

Has anyone else read this book? I'd love to hear other opinions, perhaps opinions of people who have a greater knowledge of folklore than I.

next up: Tracy Chevalier's The Virgin Blue. And please remember, I'm looking for suggestions.


Rambler said...

Really want to suggest you a book, I am not sure of your taste though,
anyways If you are into philosophy not too much of it, then you must read "Tuesday's with Morrie" and ofcourse any book by Richard bach :), love them a lot

Dayngr said...

You go girl! I haven't read a book just for pleasure in eons!

Paige said...

Rambler - Thanks, I'll look into it.

Dangyr - yeah, I'm a sickly avid reader and my lack of reading recently has been hurting my good moods. Thought I needed to do some "me" indulgence.