Picks and Pans Review: Mama Day

UPDATED 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Gloria Naylor

Anything can happen in a place where the natural and the supernatural merge. Consider Willow Springs, a small island between Georgia and South Carolina where a black population that was once emancipated by the powerful conjure-woman Sapphira Wade is now sustained by her descendant Miranda Day—the title's Mama Day. This is the same character who appeared in Naylor's 1985 novel, Linden Hills, and here, too, are faint echoes of her debut work, The Women of Brewster Place. But Mama Day traces a spiritual legacy through generations of black women whose beliefs embraced magic, herbal medicine and folk wisdom. The plot is a sinuous crisscrossing of ideas and relationships in two story lines. The first one is a romantic tale focusing on Mama Day's grand-niece, Cocoa. In her late 20s, Cocoa has moved to Manhattan and is involved with a mechanical engineer. The second story line centers on Mama Day, her sister Abigail and the mores of Willow Springs. In two stories—one espousing a practical materialism, the other a mystical faith in nature—Naylor issues a captivating call for the importance of spiritual values. And her writing, charged with an exceptional authority, resonates. Here she describes a mighty hurricane in the making: "The old walnut clock ticks on behind the soft murmuring of Abigail's voice, while far off and low the real winds come in. It starts on the shores of Africa, a simple breeze among the palms and cassavas, before it's carried off, tied up with thousands like it, on a strong wave heading due west. A world of water, heaving and rolling, weeks of water, and all them breezes die but one." Less vibrant are Naylor's characters, who, other than Mama Day, never command a reader's imagination—a problem made worse by the novel's melodramatic tendencies. So readers of folklorist Zora Neale Hurston may feel at home; fans of the more formal Toni Morrison may cringe. Naylor followers will find Mama Day an involving attempt to make magic seem a practical necessity while imbuing the practical with an expansive, magical lyricism. (Ticknor & Fields, $18.95)

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