(KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)VEY JOHNSON is 64 years old, a widow, the mother of three grown daughters, a supervisor in the New York State Motor Vehicle Department; she is a person "who kept her thoughts and feelings to herself," a black woman whose "Marian Anderson poise and reserve" give her a "look of acceptability." With two close friends she is on a cruise through the Caribbean, an annual ritual that gives her pleasure and renewal.
This year, though, things are oddly and inexplicably different. Aboard the ship she is seized by a "mysterious clogged and swollen feeling which differed in intensity and came and went at will." She feels as though she is "in the grip of a powerful hallucinogen--something that had dramatically expanded her vision, offering her a glimpse of things that were beyond her comprehension, and therefore frightening." To the shock and outrage of her friends, she packs her bags in a midnight frenzy and jumps ship at the first opportunity, when the ship makes port at the island of Grenada; her intention is to hop the first flight to New York and "to spend the rest of her vacation at home" in North White Plains.
But at Grenada surprises lie in wait for her. The daily New York plane has already left, so she must spend the night. A cab driver takes her to a luxurious, impersonal hotel where, in her room high above the beach, she is swept away in a "sudden flood of doubts and misgivings." Her past parades through her mind in a jumble of memories: of her childhood trips to the South Carolina coast, of her marriage, of the bitter struggle she and her husband made to rise out of poverty. When she wakes the next morning she is exhausted, and takes a long walk beside the water in hopes of rest and escape. In a primitive, thatched tavern, she meets its proprietor, Lebert Joseph:
"He was one of those old people who give the impression of having undergone a lifetime trial by fire which they somehow managed to turn to their own good in the end; using the fire to burn away everything in them that could possibly decay, everything mortal. So that what remains finally are only their cast-iron hearts, the few muscles and bones tempered to the consistency of steel needed to move them about, the black skin annealed long ago by the sun's blaze and thus impervious to all other fires; and hidden deep within, out of harm's way, the indestructible will: old people who have the essentials to go on forever."
Though Lebert Joseph earns his living on Grenada, he is a native of the nearby island of Carriacou. Along with many others, he is about to return there for the annual two-day "excursion," an event in which the island heritage is honored and celebrated. He persuades her to delay her return to New York and come with him; the implicit suggestion is that just as he rediscovers his heritage at Carriacou, and renews his commitment to it, so too will she relocate her own lost past and the values she has forgotten.
This voyage of renewal is the core of Paule Marshall's fine novel, and a powerful theme it is. Praisesong for the Widow is the story of a proud, intelligent, determined woman who has come a long way--from a tenement in Brooklyn to a house in the suburbs, from a limited education to a position of respect, from naivet,e to sophistication--and who at last comes to a sorrowful understanding of the cost this passage has exacted. She is drawn back in memory to an evening when a terrible confrontation with her husband forever altered their marriage, when he became so driven and singleminded in his pursuit of success for himself and his family that the love drained out of their marriage. They never separated, they remained loyal to each other up to the hour of his death, but after that evening they lost forever "the little private rituals and pleasures, the playfulness and wit of those early years, the host of feelings and passions that had defined them in a special way back then, and the music which had been their nourishment."
The harsh truth that Avey Johnson learns on this journey into the past is that in their drive for success, "They had behaved, she and Jay, as if there had been nothing about themselves worth honoring!" In the process of capitulating to the standards of white culture, they had lost not merely their private happiness but also those aspects of their heritage that were uniquely, invaluably connected to being black:
"Couldn't they have done differently? Hadn't there perhaps been another way? Questions which scarcely had any shape to them flooded her mind, and she struggled to give them form. Would it have been possible to have done both? That is, to have wrested, as they had done over all those years, the means needed to rescue them from Halsey Street and to see the children through, while preserving, safeguarding, treasuring those things that had come down to them over the generations, which had defined them in a particular way. The most vivid, the most valuable part of themselves!"
So it is that on Carriacou--"The island more a mirage than an actual place. Something conjured up perhaps to satisfy a longing and a need"--and in the company of its sympathetic, affectionate residents, Avey Johnson is reconnected to that heritage and resolves to give it proper honor. She recalls a magical story told to her as a child by a venerable aunt, and in that story recognizes the strength and dignity of her past. It is too late to recapture the pleasures of her youth, but she still has time to establish a new life for herself in which she has both material and spiritual peace.
Praisesong for the Widow, Paule Marshall's third novel, is a work of quiet passion--a book all the more powerful precisely because it is so quiet. It is also a work of exceptional wisdom, maturity and generosity, one in which the palpable humanity of its characters transcends any considerations of race or sex; that Avey Johnson is black and a woman is certainly important, but Paule Marshall understands that what really counts is the universality of her predicament.