ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Our series You Must Read This features authors talking about books they wholeheartedly recommend. Today, short story writer Asali Solomon picks a work of prose from a writer who is best known for her poetry.
ASALI SOLOMON: Gwendolyn Brooks, the late Pulitzer Prize winning poet, published only one work of fiction for adults - The Indispensable Maud Martha, a novella made up of 34 vignettes. Published in 1953, Maud Martha is the story of a girl who becomes a woman in 1940s black Chicago, told with minimal drama and maximal beauty.
The plot here resembles your life or mine, good days and bad, no headlines. But Maud Martha's riotous parade of human feeling will make you wonder what Brooks could have done with your life story. Though Maud never travels far from home, her restless imagination ranges widely. She gets the overweight girl at school who refuses to run in order to preserve her poise. Maud also deeply imagines the plight of those close to her, such as her husband Paul, who would rather be married to lighter skinned woman.
Maud even mind melds with lesser beings, including a mouse she catches and then sets free in an exuberant act of generosity, and a chicken whose dignity she acknowledges even while pulling out its guts to prepare it for the oven. It's easy to love the character of Maud, who is loyal, smart and makes hot chocolate so rich that even her high strung, critical mother must praise it.
Perhaps even more enchanting than the book's heroine is its language. I reread Maud Martha when I'm craving its creature comforts, the polished apples in a water green bowl of Maud's childhood autumns and the little diamond shaped cheeses that paprika had but breathed on which appear in her fantasies of New York.
I also admire Brooks's skill at gracefully evoking the nastiness of life, the thick fumes smelling of gray in Maud's tiny apartment. The soaked tissue of cheap barbecue that her tacky husband brings home for Christmas night and the scraps of baffled hate she occasionally experiences. Brooks collapses distinctions between poetry and prose, ending many of the chapters with elliptical but potent musings.
Young Maud awaits a visit from a white schoolmate and suddenly becomes aware and ashamed of her feelings of gratitude to the boy for visiting a black household. We never witness the encounter. Rather the scene ends with a haunting little verse. “Recipient and benefactor. It's so good of you. You're being so good.”
Years later, when Paul takes pregnant Maud to a dance only to spend all night romancing a girl with a gold spangled bosom, Maud briefly considers attacking her rival, only to conclude that if the root was sour, what business did she have up there hacking at a leaf.
Like her best loved poems, this novella is not only the chronicle of one small life, but a mirror reflecting what shines and shimmers at the edges of each reader's everyday existence.
SIEGEL: Asali Solomon is the author of a collection of short stories Get Down. And for more impassioned book recommends, you can visit our Web site NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.