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The Achievement of Paule Marshall in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People

by Leela Kapai, Professor of English

Introduction by Mary Brown, Professor of English

Every semester the Book Bridge Project has faculty scholars who prepare papers and lectures for its public forums.  Last year was no exception.  On April 18, 2001, Diane Finley, Psychology; Lillian Holloman, Sociology; and Leela Kapai, English, presented papers on The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. The following is the first of a series of papers delivered by Prince George's Community College faculty for the Book Bridge Project.  Dr. Kapai has been an admirer of Paule Marshall ever since reading her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) and has anxiously awaited each new book by Marshall. For Leela's earlier research in the College Language Association Journal, XVI, No. 1, read "Dominant Themes and Technique in Paule Marshall's Fiction" (1972) reprinted in the Book Bridge Reader's Guide 2001.

The following is Part One of Leela Kapai’s paper for the Book Bridge Project.

Paule Marshall is the author of five novels and three collections of short stories and novellas. She has also written extensively about her own craft and given numerous interviews explaining the genesis of her various books and sharing her views on the art of fiction. Her undisputed place on the modern literary scene is reflected in the amount of critical attention she has received in the form of journal articles, books, and doctoral dissertations.

Paule Marshall is not a prolific writer, some one like Joyce Carol Oates, who manages to write a substantive fictional work almost every year. Marshall is deliberative, takes her time doing research, and spends an inordinate amount of effort in planning and then mulling over her drafts. The result is that her books offer a rewarding feast for the discerning readers. Each book delves into some aspect of her recurring concerns and provides a thoughtful response to the questions she raises. Among her novels so far, The Chosen Place . . . stands out for its complex themes, panoramic settings, a wide array of vividly portrayed characters, and, most importantly, for her vision which encompasses not just the people of the Caribbean but of the entire Diaspora.

The Chosen Place… is, of course, the Bournehills, the eastern section of Bourne Island, facing the Atlantic and surrounded by hills; it seems frozen in place. One of the characters in the novel describes it as "someplace out of the Dark Ages" (58). The Timeless People of the title are its residents, whose closeness with the ways and beliefs of their African ancestors suggests that they are the direct descendents of the first Africans brought in captivity to till the land for the colonial masters. They are considered "a disgrace" by the residents of New Bristol, the seat of local government, for they seem unchanging. Merle describes her townspeople in these words ". . . we’re an odd, half-mad people… . We don’t forget anything, and yesterday comes like today to us" (102). Bournehills continues to revere Cuffy Ned, the leader of the Pyre Hill revolt, one of the largest and the most successful revolt in the Caribbean islands. Cuffy Ned had killed Percy Bryam, the man who had owned all of Bournehills, and was able to hold out against the authorities for almost three years before being captured and beheaded.

The epigraph to the novel has this quote from the Tiv of West Africa: "Once a great wrong has been done, it never dies. People speak the words of peace, but their hearts do not forgive. Generations perform ceremonies of reconciliation but there is no end." The "great wrong" in the novel refers to the evil of colonialism, a cancer that has invaded the body politic of the previously colonized areas in the Third World. It has affected not just the victims of these erstwhile colonies but also the descendents of the colonizers as well.

In an interview with Joyce Pettis, Marshall explained her intent in planning the novel: "I wanted to have a kind of vehicle that looked at the relationship of the West to the rest of us." Keeping in mind W.E. Dubois’s oft-quoted observation, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," she set out to examine it in "all its ramifications . . . to see how it played itself out in the hemisphere." Though she chose a small Caribbean island for the setting, she hoped that the book ". . .would not solely be seen as a novel about the West Indies. . . . but a novel that reflects what is happening to all of us in the Diaspora in our encounter with these metropolitan powers, the power of Europe and the power of America" (Pettis 124).

Bournehills, the fictional locale of The Chosen Place. . . , plays such a significant part in the novel that it transcends the inanimate physical environment and becomes a participant, almost a character in its own right. As Leesy observes, "Nothing ever changes in this place" (59); a little later, we are told that Bournehill people don’t want anything changed (59)—"they choose not to" (62). Those who live here seem to be immune to the temptations and promises offered by the inroads of the Western advancement; they continue their old ways and are almost psychic (64) and heed to "signs and premonitions." In fact, there is a certain mystical quality about the place; it seems to touch people in peculiar ways.

Take, for instance, the scene of the arrival of Saul Amron, a reputed anthropologist, Harriet, his wife, and Allen Fuso, his assistant, a brilliant researcher. As the plane circles the Bourne Island, the first glimpse of the place invokes distinctive feelings in each of them. The lush green fields remind Harriet of the sloping green lawns of her childhood home in Delaware, and then comes a fleeting memory of her childish attempt "to escape" from her imagined captivity. However, she seems uncomfortable at her having allowed this memory "to slip past her guard." As she forces her attention to the shifting scene below, the first sight of ". . . the ravaged sea bottom that was Bournehills,. . .struck her as being another world altogether. . . . Because of the shadows Bournehills scarcely seemed a physical place to her, but some mysterious and obscured region of the mind which ordinary consciousness did not dare admit to light. Suddenly, for a single unnerving moment, she had the sensation of being borne backward in time rather than forward in space. The plane by some perverse plan might have been taking her away from the present . . .back to the past which she had always sought to avoid" (21).

The same plane is also bringing back Vere to his homeland after three years of grueling labor in the farmlands of America under the Farm Labor Scheme. He too experiences the power of the island: "Suddenly, sitting there with his face pressed like a child’s to the plane window, he realized beyond word or thought how fixed and inevitable had been his return, how inescapable. . . . all the things he had seen and done his three years in the States were as nothing suddenly in the face of that dark steepled hill and the village obscured at its foot. They had awaited him the while" (14).

Saul’s first look at Bournehills comes when he is driven on the mountain road leading to the area: "It looked strangely familiar to Saul. . . . for some reason, [it] brought to mind other areas up and down the hemisphere where he had worked. . . . It was suddenly, to his mind, every place that had been wantonly used, its substance stripped away. . . . Moreover, the place, these ragged hills crowded out of sight behind the high ridge, with the night hiding in their folds, even seemed, suddenly, to hold some personal meaning for him, his thoughts becoming complex, circular wheels within a wheel as he stood there. Bournehills could have been a troubled region within himself to which he had unwittingly returned" (100).

Another remarkable achievement of Paule Marshall is in the portrayal of her characters. Among them, Merle Kinbona, the most enigmatic woman—sometimes intriguing, other times tiresome, is at the heart of the novel. She is most aptly depicted by a critic as "part saint, part obeah woman, part revolutionary" (quoted in Pettis 125). Daughter of a mixed blood plantation owner and a farm worker, never acknowledged by her father, yet supported by him after her mother was murdered by her father’s lawful wife, Merle never forgave him for his indifference. Her anger and bitterness erupted in a rebellion against him—she left her studies in England and formed some alliances that eventually came back to haunt her. She hurt herself grievously; her husband left with their child for his homeland, Africa, when he came to know of her relationship with a wealthy English woman. Broken in spirit, Merle returned to Bournehills but even after eight years she continues to be tortured by her past. Her incessant chattering, in fact, is a way of keeping her from thinking of her losses created by her own stupidities. From another angle, Merle, "the mouth king," as Marshall calls her, allows the author to use her talk as "a means of saying what is not to be said. . . . She says things about the relationships of people of the island, those with power, those without…." Marshall says, "It was a way for me to have her state some of the concerns and themes of the novel" (Pettis 124-125).

Merle is comfortable dealing with the people in power on the island, for some of them were her friends and fellow students in London, but her real sympathies lie with the "little fella," the Bournehill residents, who are looked down upon as backwards by the elite. She understands the nature of Bournehills, the mystical qualities of its residents, its stubborn rejection of any thing new, and hopes that some one would come up with a plan to help the Bournehill folks to retain their values and yet provide them with assistance to sustain themselves. She knows why the earlier aid plans had failed, for they had tried to impose an outsider’s version of what would help the ignorant common folks. Like the other Bournehill people, she too believes in keeping the memory of Cuffee Ned alive; in fact, her insistence on teaching her high school students their own history, against the wishes of the headmaster, cost her her teaching position. So close is she to the people that, in the words of Allen, she "somehow is Bournehills" (118).

Part Two of this article will be found in the next issue of the Instructional Forum.
Wednesday, November 7, 2001, 10 AM - Noon, the Book Bridge Project presents "Valuing Public Education in 2001:   Prince George's County-A Learning Community," Rennie Forum, Largo Student Center .


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 1

Fall 2001