Sunday, June 26, 2022

Back to the Classics 2022: Maud Marth by Gwendolyn Brooks


I felt like one of the cool kids when I listened to the most recent Backlisted podcast and heard that the very well-read Andy Miller had only just come across this book. And here, I read it months ago. 😆 Both Andy and I liked it a lot. 

Gwendolyn Brooks received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, the first Black poet to receive that honor.  Though born in Kansas, she moved to Chicago when just an infant and was made Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968. This is her only novel and it does read like a very long prose poem, so I suspect anyone who enjoys her poetry will also enjoy Maud Martha. Normally, poetry is not my thing. I often find it inscrutable. But not so Gwendolyn Brooks. Here is a sample:

"But I am certainly not what he would call pretty. Even with all this hair (which I have just assured him, in response to his question, is not "natural," is not good grade or anything like good grade) even with whatever I have that puts a dimple in his heart, even with these nice ears, I am still, definitely, not what he can call pretty if he remains true to what his idea of pretty has always been. Pretty would be a little cream-colored thing with curly hair. Or at the very lowest pretty would be a little curly-haired thing the color of cocoa with a lot of milk in it. Whereas, I am the color of cocoa straight, if you can even be that "kind" to me. 

He wonders, as we walk in the street, about the thoughts of people who look at use. Are they thinking he could do no better than - me? Then he thinks, Well hmp! Well huh! – all the little-good lookin' dolls that have wanted him – all the little sweet high-yellows that have ambled slowly past his front door – What he would like to tell those secretly snickering ones! – That any day out of the week he can do better than this black gal. "

It is split into vignettes depicting trajectory of Maud Martha’s girlhood to womanhood in midcentury Chicago. Her homelife and childhood is happy, though she is somewhat in the shadow of her prettier older sister. When she marries and moves in to her own apartment, life definitely takes a bit of a turn. Her husband leaves a lot to be desired. But both he and Maud Martha are also worn down by the sometimes casual sometimes blatant racism of the era. 

The middle section titled “kitchenette folks” is the longest, depicting the residents of the building Maud Martha lives in with her husband. It reminded me some in its scope (but not style) of The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor.

My edition of the novel was only 180 pages long. This is  a short novel but one which tells volumes despite its brevity and simplicity of the language.  I read this for the Back to the Classics category "Classic by a BIPOC Author" for the challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.

14 comments:

  1. Great review. Love that cool kids feeling. I felt it recently while listening to a podcast by Spanish guys that are hilarious and know tons about movies, books, and culture in general, when they mentioned books I have read LOL.

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    1. Hi Silvia. Aren't we both just super cool? LOL. It is a neat feeling, however when having read a book puts you in the know.

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  2. That was me, Silvia.

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  3. Hi Ruthiella, So glad to hear from you! I too find poetry hard to follow but the thing I remember about Gwendolyn Brooks is a poem she wrote Sadie and Maud. The poem is very short and it's always bothered me because Sadie and Maud are sisters and Sadie is fun loving and "scrapes life with a fine tooth comb" and Maud in comparison went to college and then stayed home and it's clear that Brooks' admiration and empathy is entirely with Sadie. So I am curious about Maud Marth because it sounds like, in the novel she is expanding the story but maybe Maud is a different character entirely than in the poem.

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    1. Hi Kathy. I think the name is just a coincidence. Maud Martha's sister in the novel is named Helen and the author has a lot of sympathy/empathy for Maud Martha. The sister has advantages due to her looks but as she ages, that advantage doesn't necessarily do her any good. I love that you have remembered this and are a champion for the Maud who stayed home! The poem really stuck with you.

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  4. What a great pick for your classic by a BIPOC author! I've never heard of this one, but it sounds really good. :)

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    1. Hi Lark. I'd never heard of it either. I can't even remember how I came across it but I am glad I did. Like I said, poetry isn't my think but having read this has cemented Brooks into my reading macrocosm.

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  5. Her poetry is poetry I actually like! I've been meaning to read this, and I remember you had it on your list for this year's back to the classics (or at least mentioned it somewhere). I'm glad to hear it held up to its promise.

    Now I need to find a copy!

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    1. I looked as some of her poetry after I finished the novel and I found it to be very accessible. I think the novel is print on demand. I got mine from Third World Press. But my library also had an anthology of her poetry which also included the novel, so I checked that out too – you know, just to show the powers that be that her stuff needs to be kept in circulation!

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  6. That's very readable, Ruthiella. I've only read one novel (I think) that was sort of blank verse/poetry & that was a kid's book - Inside Out & Back Again - a chronicle of a ten year old Vietnamese girl during 1975. My daughter read it aloud to her class and said it was received really well. Carol

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    1. Hi Carol! I am now more interested in reading books in verse, now that I know it isn't something I need to be afraid of. There is YA author in the US, Jacqueline Woodson, who has written a couple of books in verse and I might check one out.

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  7. I'd say you're one of the cool kids just for doing podcasts!

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