Author: Gloria Naylor
First published: 1982
Locale: An urban neighborhood in the North
Plot: Social realism
Time: Unspecified, but most likely during and after the 1960's
Mattie Michael, a strong, elderly, unmarried black woman who reared a son before moving to Brewster Place. Mattie is the pivotal character in the novel. It is her own personal tragedies—her father's shame and rejection when he learns that she is pregnant; the loss of her son, Basil, whom she loves dearly; the loss of her worldly possessions—that make her sensitive to the tragedies of others. She is the character who breathes life and hope into the dismal atmosphere of Brewster Place. At the end of the novel, Mattie is the first to begin tearing down the wall that makes Brewster Place a literal and figurative dead end for its residents. In their symbolic protest and rage, she and the other women in the community join together to fight their condition instead of being ruled by it.
Etta Mae Johnson, Mattie's closest friend, an attractive woman who carries herself with pride. In Rock Vale, the town in which Mattie and Etta grew up, there was no place for a woman with Etta's rebellious, independent spirit. She refused to play by society's rules and spent most of her life moving to one major city after another, from one promising black man to another, in the hope that one of them would take care of her. Upon her return to Brewster Place, Etta learns that her friend Mattie can give her what she is searching for, things that no man has ever given her: love, comfort, and friendship.
Kiswana Browne, formerly Melanie, a young black woman who rejects her parents' middle-class values, changes her name, and boasts of her African heritage. She is also an activist who organizes a tenants' association at Brewster Place. Kiswana, in her naïveté, believes that her mother is ashamed of being black because she leads a middle-class existence. Finally realizing that she and her mother are not so different, that they are both women who are proud of their heritage and who desire to improve the lot of future generations, Kiswana learns to be more tolerant to those whose lifestyles are different from hers.
Luciela Louise Turner, a young married woman, the granddaughter of Eva Turner, the woman who befriended and sheltered Mattie years earlier. She constantly makes excuses for her husband's frequent absences from her and their month-old baby. When her husband learns that she is pregnant again, he threatens to leave her. In an attempt to prevent his leaving once more, she gets an abortion. When her daughter dies in a household accident, however, Luciela loses her connection with life and the ability to feel. She slowly begins to waste away. Mattie refuses to accept her friend's gradual suicide and rocks Luciela in her arms until Luciela is able to feel, to express her sorrow, and to return to life again.
Cora Lee, a young, unmarried high school dropout who continues to have babies because she loves children. After reluctantly agreeing to attend a performance of a William Shakespeare play with her children at Kiswana's insistence, Cora Lee begins to change her outlook on life and motherhood. She realizes that her children are more than playthings, more than her baby dolls; they are human beings with needs and desires of their own.
Theresa, a lesbian who is Lorraine's lover. She has been with men (some of whom were kind, others cruel), but she is drawn naturally to women. In her direct and outspoken manner, she insists that being a lesbian means being different, by nature, from other people. It means being outside society, because society punishes those who are different in such an intense way. She prefers to ignore the straight world and socializes only with lesbians. She is jealous of Lorraine's friendship with Ben, the janitor.
Lorraine, a teacher who fears society's condemnation of her lesbian relationship with Theresa. Her view of what it means to be a lesbian is very different from Theresa's. She detests the word “lesbian” and insists that she is not different from other people. In the past, however, she has suffered more than Theresa for her choice. Her father disowned her, and she lost her teaching job in Detroit and fears that she could be fired again. She and Theresa have moved many times because of her fears. She craves social acceptance and cannot accept being cut off from the community. Ben is the only one in the community who does not view her as being different. Becoming a scapegoat for the entire community's fears and prejudices, near the end of the novel she is brutally raped by a group of gang members.
Ben, the elderly, alcoholic janitor of Brewster Place. He is a kind, gentle, and nonjudgmental man who sees some of his own daughter in Lorraine and who comforts her when she is rejected and ridiculed by the women of Brewster Place. Ben is killed by Lorraine when he appears in the alley where she has just been raped.