Author: Sarah E. Wright
First published: 1969
Locale: The eastern shore of Maryland
Plot: Social realism
Time: The late 1920's
Mariah “Rah” Upshur, the protagonist, a young African American woman who is determined to escape from the poverty, ignorance, and religious hypocrisy of her community and save her children, even if it means leaving her husband, Jacob. Earlier, she had been driven from the church because of her pregnancy out of wedlock. Mariah finally is married to Jacob, but she is not reconciled to the church. In the course of the novel, she loses two children, leaves Tangierneck with her family and takes work with them as migrant laborers, and returns to her home.
Jacob Upshur, Mariah's husband, whose commitment to the land being stolen from him by his white relatives leads him to ignore his real circumstances. Though a religious man, he fathers a son, Ned, by his adopted sister, Vyella. He nevertheless condemns Mariah for bearing Dr. Albert Grene's daughter, Bardetta Tometta. He seems unable to break away from his father, who taught him to believe that he is the master of his world. He is well intentioned but ineffectual.
Percy Upshur, Jacob's father, whose sexual relationship with Miss Bannie, a white relative, causes him to lose his land and, ultimately, his life. He rules his family and is responsible for Jacob's weakness.
Bertha Ann Upshur, Percy's wife and a thorn in Mariah's side. To prevent Mariah's marriage to Jacob, she sent him to Baltimore and self-righteously condemned Mariah for her pregnancy.
Horace Upshur, called “Rabbit,” Mariah's son. He suffers from a harelip and eventually dies from roundworms and tuberculosis. Bright and creative, he is to be a poet and is Mariah's favorite. In order to save Mariah's life, he takes the fatal blue pills away from her and later uses them himself. Although he is a “real” character, he is also a symbolic one—he is intellect housed in a flawed body, and his death ironically comments on the results of good intentions.
Bardetta Tometta Upshur, Mariah's daughter by Dr. Albert Grene, named for the legendary Bard Tom, Jacob's grandfather, whose rebellion against white society and his subsequent lynching made him a folk hero. The child serves a structural function, in that the novel begins shortly before her birth and ends shortly after her death.
Bannie Upshire Dudley, known as Miss Bannie, a white mail carrier, landowner, and lover of Percy Upshur, her relative. She acquires control of the Upshur land, which is passed, after her death, to Mr. Nelson. She is almost drowned by Mariah, who cannot commit murder, and returns her to her home, where she takes the blue pills.
Vyella, Jacob's adopted sister and mother to his child Ned. Mariah's best friend, she is a woman whose “natural” religious feelings lead her to become a preacher and a foil to the religious hypocrites.
Albert Grene, Percy and Miss Bannie's son, a respected physician, and father to Mariah's daughter, Bardetta Tometta.
Haim Crawford, a red-faced, racist patriarch of a family that is the “establishment” in Dormerset County. According to Mariah, he uses African Americans as spittoons.