Mama Day, Miranda Day, Little Mama, Sister. These are the names that Mama Day answers to in Gloria Naylor’s magical realism novel. Names have power in this book, the power of generations of family history and family ties, the power to protect you from bad luck and bad magic. The Day family has lived on Willow Springs Island since people first settled there, back in the days of slavery. The island stands between North Carolina and Georgia, claimed by neither, tended to only by the families that found their way there after slave owner Bascombe Wade deeded the island to his former slave lover, the mother and ancestress of the Day family line. Now the line is down to three women, Miranda Day and her sister Abigail, and Abigail’s grown granddaughter, Ophelia, known as Cocoa or Baby Girl.
The book is about families, first and foremost, how they bring you up and how they pull you down. Ophelia leaves Willow Springs to get an education and hopefully find a husband someday. Who she finds is George Andrews, a man with a literal broken heart and a strong will, a man rooted in reality and deep logic. Ophelia comes from the Day family, though, a family steeped in the strange traditions of Willow Springs and the everyday magic of herbs, charms, and curses. Mama Day is the midwife, doctor, and near-priestess to the people of Willow Springs, and Ophelia grew up at her knee, absorbing the traditions and folklore surrounding her family and community.
When she’s in the world “over the bridge”, as they call it, it’s easy for her to forget about the ways of life in Willow Springs, the good and the bad, but when she finally brings George home, they are reminded forcibly of how very different things are on the island, and just how dangerous they can be. It’s up to Mama Day to try and convince the non-believer, George, that the small magics and strange rituals are just as real as his engineering degree, before it’s too late.
The best parts about this book are the characters. Mama Day is a woman with strong convictions and a true sense of the world around her. She has outlived almost everyone in her family except her sister and her great niece, and she’s survived countless wrenching heartbreaks. She is respected, revered, and even feared by the community she services with her remedies and cures, and she is loved deeply by the family she has left.
Ophelia is a woman trying find a balance between the everyday world and the world of Willow Springs, and a balance between love for George and love for herself, keeping both but not letting one consume the other. George has learned hard lessons in life, due to his upbringing and his physical limitations, but he must also learn how to meet Ophelia halfway while still retaining the things that make him who he is.
The interplay between George and Ophelia is really the seller for me, though. The point of view switches back and forth between them, as well as chapters from Mama Day’s perspective from the island. It’s a conversation between two people who love each other very much, and the trials they put themselves and each other through, trying to build a marriage and a home and a family while retaining independence. The view from both sides of an argument is enlightening and touching, and their struggle to love each other despite their faults is so very human. With the addition of Mama Day’s magic, the story loses none of its human quality; it merely takes on a spiritual significance that we often seem to lack in our mundane lives.
There are several instances in the book that will mean more to a person of color reading it than to a plain old white girl like me. The mention of Ophelia being sensitive about the lightness of her skin is a point that only a reader of color might notice, with an understanding of the history of the stigma of people being able to “pass” as white or non-black. When George admits to Ophelia that he is dating a white woman, her insecurities and emotions surrounding the confession aren’t as obvious to me.
There are other nuances in the text that I may have missed, simply because my background is so different, but my interest was held regardless, and I was able to enjoy the book immensely. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a love for strong female (and male) characters, a captivating storyline, and a fascinating look at a community kept apart from the rest of the world.
Bonnie Norman. I'm an English Major, a feminist, and a book lover. Sometimes a writer, too. I'm committed to being a voice for diversification and inclusion in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, as well as all books and the world at large. Check out Bonnie at A Working Title.