Brown Girl, Brownstones features two interrelated story lines. The main plot traces Selina’s development from a ten-year-old girl who takes her beloved father’s side in the family quarrels into a mature young woman who comes to appreciate her mother’s power and self-sacrifice. This story line plays out in the context of her parents’ ongoing conflict over their competing visions and values as Barbadian (Bajan) immigrants in America.
After establishing the relationship between Selina’s parents, Paule Marshall turns to Selina’s friendship with Beryl and to the intimacy they share as prepubescent girls trying to understand their changing bodies and lives. The novel also sets up a contrast between Selina and her older, less rebellious sister, who will grow up and marry a nice, young Bajan man exactly as her family and community expect her to do.
The major theme of Brown Girl, Brownstones is the American Dream and the price immigrants pay when they pursue it single-mindedly or get caught up in its easy seductions. Silla Boyce, as she sits alone at night running her sewing machine because she cannot sleep, is an impressive, almost tragic figure who sacrifices love and happiness for material success. Deighton Boyce, in contrast, wants to get ahead without cost or effort. Typically, he skips practicing his musical scales and the introductory chapters of his accounting book in the mistaken belief that success is his for the asking. The novel, while critiquing American capitalism, expresses admiration for the successes of the hardworking West Indian community.
Community is itself a significant theme in the novel. The Bajan community is portrayed as a nurturing and supportive one despite Selina’s rebellion against its conservative values and narrow-mindedness. Above all, it is a wonderfully vital linguistic community. Marshall has often spoken of growing up listening to her mother’s friends, these “kitchen poets” cursing and commenting on the world around them in voices rich with metaphors culled from their earlier lives in Barbados. She has described their special idiom as a blend of the standard British English taught in West Indian schools, Bajan rhythms and syntax, and...
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Brown Girl, Brownstones is a novel of Selina’s growth from an immature ten-year-old to a self-confident young woman on the threshold of adulthood. Adolescence, in general, is a difficult time, and in Selina’s case the problems are compounded by the fact that her parents are immigrants trying to make a place for themselves in a new country. The West Indian community depicted in the novel prides itself in its members’ ability to work hard, save money, and acquire property in order to achieve the American Dream of success. People such as Deighton Boyce and Clive Springer who do not follow the norm are looked down on by the community.
Selina’s life is further complicated by her inability to understand the love-hate relationship between her parents. Silla wants Deighton to be like other West Indian men and be a financial success. Selina feels closer to her father, who dwells in the nostalgic memories of his homeland and lacks the tenacity to stick to a goal and achieve it. She is turned off by her mother’s single-minded devotion to making money. She is baffled and irritated by her sister Ina’s complacent attitude, not realizing that Ina’s turn to religion and desire for an unruffled life is her way of coping with the discord at home. Yet, even as Selina openly derides her mother’s ways, she cannot help admiring her strength, determination, and ability to express herself.
Like most adolescents, Selina is unsure of her own identity. Initially, she desires to be like her...
(The entire section is 619 words.)