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Book Review : Down-and-Out Family, Out of the Mainstream, Wants In

February 23, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Mama by Terry McMillan (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95)

When we first meet Mildred Peacock, she's 27 and has five kids. She lives in a small town in Michigan, near the Canadian border. Her husband, Crook, has beat her up one time too many. Mildred has had it with that lazy lout, and so by the end of Chapter I it's just her hanging out with those five kids: Freda, the eldest at 11; a little boy-child named Money, because he's such an incorrigible cadger, and Bootsey, Angel and Doll.

What's going to happen next? How will they keep food on the table? Mildred doesn't have any particular way to make money; she has no marketable skills, and Point Haven, Mich., is not exactly the career capital of America.

That's when things begin to get a little trying. The lights get cut off, and the family eats by candlelight. When Christmas comes, Freda has to go without presents because she's the oldest--but, as Mildred reminds her, there are always sales after the new year and they'll be able to get more for their money. If they have any money.

A Job Here and There

How do they go on living? By hook and by crook. There's always a man or two who falls by with a little spending money. Mildred picks up a job here or there--working in a factory for a while, or cleaning someone else's house, or even turning tricks for a few months, sleeping with a white guy once a week (who feels like ants and maggots on her skin) up at the Starlite Motel.

"Mama" divides exactly in half. The first section is made up of some of the events described above, including a few romances and marriages: Poor Rufus who possesses in generosity what he lacks in brains, or Spooky Cooper who makes Mildred feel like she's "going to bed with the President of the United States," or Billy Callahan, almost young enough to be her son.

Her life is her children, and without making a big deal about it, she raises these kids to the brink of adulthood, then faces the anguish of losing them. The second half of the novel begins.

What happens--what can happen--to Freda, Doll, Bootsey, Angel and Money? What is possible in America if you come from nowhere, but if--against all odds--you've grown up in what, by default, you'd have to call a strong family?

Mildred is a black woman, and this is a "black" novel, but in the most profound sense that's not the point. In America, where one in every two marriages ends in divorce, where women earn 59 cents for every dollar men earn, something like 50% of all American families are eventually going to be involved with aspects either of matriarchy or poverty. The author's artistic question here is--how does that dynamic work? Can children raised that way live ?

By the time the second half begins, the reader cares about what's going to happen to all these kids, and to their mother as well.

It seems preordained that poor Money, as shiftless and disoriented as his dad, will end up a heroin addict and spend a lot of time behind bars. But each of the four daughters has devised a separate strategy to get out, to leave squalor and poverty behind. One girl marries a white man, to the vast disgust of her relatives. Another more or less sets up shop as a "bad girl," having a baby whose father's name she didn't quite catch--lying and cheating, exacting a personal revenge on a (largely uncaring) society. Bootsey marries, has kids, works double shifts wherever she can and invests heavily in brand-new furniture.

Freda, that oldest girl who had to give up her Christmas presents and act as a substitute mama to the younger kids whenever her own mama went under, opts for education as her way out. She moves to Los Angeles, finds a bachelor apartment with a glittery ceiling, and proceeds by fits and starts through the university system.

But there's a moment--up in Marin County, when she and some handsome gent lounge in a hot tub, buzzing on cocaine--when the reader realizes that Freda and her mama are caught in the same trap. And it's not just men, and not just white society. It's alcohol and drugs and the wish to use sex as oblivion, a way not to notice the demands of the outside world. These are the patterns that Mildred and Freda share.

The story here, then, is what happens to people when they're locked out of mainstream life. Terry McMillan only mentions in one sentence that white journalists in New York aren't exactly waiting on pins and needles for a penniless black woman to come and join their ranks. The racism, the "oppression" she's addressing comes from far, far back, and it's been completely internalized. If you didn't deserve to have electric lights in your house when you were a kid, how can you deserve freedom, happiness and love when you're grown up?

The end here should not be given away, but the author suggests, almost as a Zen exercise, that the first way for the locked-out to break from the prisons of their souls is to love each other; that if all those who are "locked out" could turn to each other for comfort and love and support, then it might be the tight, white, Establishment patriarchy that might end up, in fact, locked in.

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