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Brown Girl, Brownstones is the first novel by the internationally recognized writer Paule Marshall, published in 1959. Paule Marshall was born in 1929 in Brooklyn. Her parents, Samuel and Ada Burke, had arrived separately from Barbados immediately after the First World War. Although Marshall was was nine before she visited Barbados, she was steeped into the colors, sounds, and culture of the island.
The novel opens in 1939 when Selina is 10. The setting is the quarter where the Caribbean immigrants settled in the brownstone apartment houses. This a period just after the Great Depression and jobs were scarce for everyone. Many Barbadians were employed in domestic work. Deighton Boyce exemplifies several of the problems that Barbadians and other immigrants faced. Even if he had finished all of his accounting qualifications, discrimination against black immigrants and black African American US citizens. was rife. Segregation in cafes, schools, beaches and on transport was the norm. Such segregation only began to change when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and success in the 1960s.
The action of the novel ends a few years after the close of the war. Knowing the historical background - including the movement of immigrants and their fight to locate themselves in new environments - and understanding the US apartheid policies helps us to appreciate the bitterness of Selina's mother and the helpless acceptance of Deighton. It also helps us to understand the tensions that Selina must have felt.
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...
(The entire section is 915 words.)