This summer I asked for suggestions for a book to add to our ninth grade curriculum. It's a great set of books, but lacking in women and persons of color, as both characters and authors. The book which had been chosen to fill some of those gaps, Kindred, just isn't good enough as a book to really fit the criterion. But finding a replacement turned out to be surprisingly hard, often because the best choices, like Their Eyes Were Watching God, were already taken by the other grades. I got a lot of great suggestions, though, many of which I've never heard of, and which forced me to admit that I could do a better job of seeking these kind of books out.
Maud Martha was by far my favorite of those suggestions I read, and very nearly made my end-of-year list. The only novel of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, it tells the story of the titular protagonist from childhood to marriage and motherhood. The early chapters, when Maud Martha is young, have a kind of dreamy quality that captures being a child very well, and reveals the poetic quality of Brooks' prose:
To be cherished was the dearest wish of the heart of Maud Martha Brown, and sometimes when she was not looking at dandelions (for one would not be looking at them all the time, often there were chairs and tables to dust or tomatoes to slice or beds to make or grocery stores to be gone to, and in the colder months there were no dandelions at all), it was hard to believe that a thing of only ordinary allurements--if the allurements of any flower could be said to be ordinary--was as easy to love as a thing of heart-catching beauty.
What I like most about Maud Martha is that very little happens. The most intense conflict comes from the petty drama of married life, like her husband Paul's desire to become a well-respected member of the Foxy Cats club in Harlem, or Maud Martha's dissatisfaction with the smallness and meanness of her apartment. Mostly, Maud Martha is a celebration of domestic life, and Brooks' poetic eye dwells on the small and significant stuff of ordinary lives. Other suggestions, like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Bluest Eye are far more interested in exposing the terrible consequences of black estrangement in America, and though they do that important task well, they would be bleak additions to an already admittedly bleak curriculum. But Maud Martha's insistence that domestic life, and black domestic life at that, can be a source of poetic interest strikes me as being as important, and even more radical. Racial conflict is persistent here, but muted, as in Paul and Maud Martha's realization that they are the only black people in a crowded theater and the vague shame it inspires. Few books do such a good job of observing how issues of race affect the ordinary and the quotidian.
Anyway, we're not teaching it, not yet. I would really like to, but it didn't help that I lost my copy and couldn't loan it anyone--that's why this review is so late (it seems amusingly appropriate that I only found it today, the first day of the new year). I wonder how students would deal with what seems to me to be an aggressive plotlessness, and the unprosiness of its prose. I found it very affecting, and I think they would, too.