Author: Paule Marshall
First published: 1991
Locale: New York City and Triunion, a fictional island in the West Indies
Plot: Social realism
Time: The 1930's to the 1980's
Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie, the protagonist and narrator. The only child of a teacher from Connecticut and a prominent West Indian political leader, Ursa now lives in New York City after having spent her first fourteen years on the island of Triunion. Although she seems independent and successful, in fact everything about Ursa's life is uncertain, from her future as a free-lance researcher to her relationship with her long-time lover, Lowell Carruthers, whom she trusts so little that she has an abortion without even informing him of her pregnancy. It becomes evident that Ursa cannot proceed with her own life until she has sorted out her feelings about her parents and her native island.
Estelle Beatrice Harrison Mackenzie, Ursa's mother. An intelligent, idealistic young grade school teacher from Hartford, Connecticut, she falls in love with the personable Primus Mackenzie and commits her life to him and his Caribbean island. Their marriage is marred not only by Estelle's repeated difficulties in carrying a child to term but also by her husband's insistence on maintaining a mistress. When Ursa is still a baby, Estelle walks out, but she decides to remain in what she realizes is a flawed relationship with a flawed man.
Primus Mackenzie (The PM), Ursa's father, a personable lawyer, politician, and hotel owner on Triunion. Throughout his childhood, Primus is indulged and spoiled by adoring women, who nickname the bright little boy “The PM” in anticipation of his becoming a prominent leader, perhaps a prime minister. Despite Primus' charm, he has a serious weakness—his inability to make difficult moral choices—that eventually leads to his political downfall.
Astral Delores Forde, a poor woman from rural Triunion who sees her establishment as Primus' mistress and the manager of the hotel he owns as a first step up the social ladder. After the birth of Ursa, she realizes that she will never climb any higher and never take Estelle's place as Primus' wife. The fact that in Ursa's presence Primus expects Astral to assume the role of a servant makes it clear how insensitive he is about his mistress' feelings. After a life of loneliness, humiliation, and suppressed resentment, Astral finally is rewarded when Ursa offers her not merely respect but also a daughter's affection.
Vincereta (Viney) Daniels, Ursa's closest friend, a black insurance executive in New York City. After years of searching for a worthy man to share her life, Viney decides to remain independent and to concentrate on rearing her young son, a product of artificial insemination. Her strength in adversity and her refusal to accept the second best make Viney an inspiration for Ursa.
Lowell Carruthers, Ursa's lover. An executive with a manufacturing company, Carruthers is a self-centered man who values Ursa because she will listen for hours to his complaints about his job. Because he is spineless, he resents every evidence of independence on Ursa's part, such as her leaving a secure position to launch into consultant work.
Ursa Louise Wilkerson Mackenzie, known as Mis-Mack, the mother of Primus Mackenzie. A hardworking woman who ran the family business while her husband loafed and boasted, she unwittingly influenced Primus' perception of a man's proper place in the world.
Celestine Marie-Claire Bellegarde, an abandoned child who was taken in by Mis-Mack and trained as a nurse for her children. Throughout her life, she remains devoted to Primus and to Ursa, both of whom she considers her own. Celestine's monologues reflect not only her jealousy of Estelle but also the hostility of many islanders toward new ways and new ideas.