CRITIQUE ON MAMA DAY
by Cathy Pontoriero
The plot centers around the three main characters: Ophelia/Cocoa/Baby Girl, George and Mama Day. Mama Day is by far the most dominant personality, although we are not inside her mind the same way we are with Cocoa and George. Mama Day represents the power and resilience of nature and the town of Willow Springs itself. She seems to literally be upholding the town, and to be so indispensable, I wonder what the town will do when she is gone, left with only Dr. Buzzard as the resident "medicine man." But Mama Day seems to have no intention of leaving anytime soon.
Naylor enhances the connection of Mama Day with nature by associating her with natural imagery. We always see Mama Day in her gardens, or the forest, nursing the land with her skill. She has a connection to nature, and can understand it, as seen by her prediction of the storm. Mama Day represents the last vestiges of the power of the African wise woman, a role that is dying out as society becomes more and more urban.
Cocoa straddles the worlds of nature and the city. Her roots are in Willow Springs and she cannot forget that. However, we can never see her taking up the role of wise woman after Mama Day is gone. She has been too changed by the city and its disappointments and heartaches. This division causes much of the conflict between her and George, since she often lashes out when her soul is divided.
George Andrews represents, of course, the world of the city. He cannot accept Mama Day's primal power, and loses his life for his lack of belief. His angry retaliation at the helpless chickens represents the urban idea of attempting to control nature. George tries to control something he can't understand, and thus pays the consequences.
Each character is associated with their own imagery and language. When each of them speaks, it is with their own unique dialect. Mama Day is always written with the southern, Willow Springs language. George's mind is structured, his language the precise speech of an educated city man. As part of her role as walking the middle road, Cocoa thinks with city language, but often the Willow Springs dialect will resurface, especially when she is visiting her home.
Naylor's descriptive language exerts itself in other ways besides character development. The blustery shore of the Sound comes vividly to life, as does the majesty and mystery of the forest. But one scene in particular struck me as the best example of Naylor's powers. Cocoa has begun to hallucinate from the poison Ruby has given her, and suffers through some terrible ordeals. The shocking descriptions: the worms in the shower, the welts in her skin that began to move within her body, the rot that takes a hold of her insides, all affected me greatly. I was physically repulsed, and impressed at the same time, at how the author could so pen Cocoa's suffering so that I myself longed for an end. "Come on, George," I thought, "You've got to save her, this is too horrible to bear."
Such powerful imagery is Naylor's greatest strength. Her words invoke emotions and deep concern for her characters. I became entranced with the world she created, often looking up from a long session of reading surprised to find myself in my dorm room. Willow Springs and its people became alive for me, and that is truly the mark of a great author and a fantastic novel.