PRAISESONG FOR THE WIDOW by Paule Marshall

PRAISESONG FOR THE WIDOW

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Though Marshall's painstaking, rather neat and preachy treatment doesn't quite respond to the vitality of her concept here, this tale of an elderly black woman's epiphanies--which re-connect her to a lest African legacy--occasionally takes on the bright flair of adventure. Is it just an abrupt sense of unease that drives Avey Johnson, a well-to-do widow from North White Plains, to leave her companions on a Caribbean cruise. . . to seek home and shelter? Or is it that violent, terrifying dream: Avey's dream of threatening, beckoning Greataunt Cuney in South Carolina, who long ago told the child Avatara about the Ibos--the clairvoyant Africans who foresaw the horrors of slavery and walked back home, chains and all, across the waters? In any case, Avey is shaken; she leaves the cruise ship for a resort town. But, in her antiseptic hotel, she's tortured by memories: her years-ago rage over a N.Y. tenement life of firetraps and pregnancies; the pressure that drove husband Jay--open, witty, playful, passionate--to become ""Jerome,"" to slave for twelve years ""with blinkers on"" to make money; Jay's estrangement from his own people, the couple's loss of precious small rituals--like the ""cullud"" Sunday mornings of Gospel music and coffee cake. Avey walks the beach; heat-sick, she stumbles into a tiny bar owned by ancient Lebert Johnson. And there she'll learn about the people of this town--who, speaking the Patois, make an annual Excursion to the island Cariacou, where they visit family, party, and above all venerate the past: the Old Parents, the Longtime People. So Avey goes along, of course, feeling the tightening of threads joining her to a ""huge, wide fraternity"" Oust like the one she enjoyed on childhood trips with her own people on the Hudson); when she fails ill, she's lovingly tended; there's a night of the old people's ""nation dances,"" with that one drum note of ""the bruised, still-bleeding innermost chamber of the collective heart."" And finally Avey--now ""Avatara"" again--will dance tall and straight, remembering, receiving the others' genuflections. . . and returning home with a vow to tell her grandchildren how the Ibos walked the water. Like Marshall's earlier work: well-knit and sensitively textured, but with hortatory bones poking through--and though Marshall was something of a groundbreaker, the Roots-seeking theme is by new more than a little frayed.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0452267110
Publisher: Putnam