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Summary:This collection is introduced with an essay by Suzanne Poirier (editor of the journal, Literature and Medicine). The collection, describes Poirier, looks at how such equations as "sex = disease, homosexuality = disease, promiscuity = disease, and, finally, homosexuality = promiscuity = disease" are, in fact, being challenged, resisted, and "rewritten in a healing way in today's writing about the epidemic [found] in the literary presses, obituary columns, and even freshman compositions." The book contains thirteen essays and an annotated bibliography of AIDS literature from 1982 through 1991.
This novel, a winner of the American Book Award in 1983, focuses on the stories of several women who have come to live on the dead-end street, Brewster Place ("the bastard child of several clandestine meetings between the alderman of the sixth district and the managing director of Unico Realty Company" (p. 1), and the interweaving of their lives.
Mattie Michael has lost her home to her much loved, but errant son, but becomes the backbone of this community of women; Etta Mae Johnson has loved one man too many and comes to Brewster Place defeated, but finds "light and love and comfort" in the friendship of Mattie; Kiswana Browne moves to Brewster Place in an attempt to develop her Afro-centric identity, divorced from her middle class family; Lucielia Louise Turner loses one pregnancy to an abortion to keep her husband, and loses her remaining daughter to a tragic accident, also losing the will to live until Mattie’s intervention; Cora Lee’s profound loneliness motivates her to conceive child after child ("Her new baby doll" [p. 107]); "The Two" (Lorraine and Theresa) attempt to work out their life together closeted from the homophobic world. Despite the pain and suffering represented in the novel, the story culminates with a dream vision of the community healed and rebuilding itself.
Yolanda Ramírez, a phlebotomist in Coachella Valley, California, begins worrying, in 1983, about the deaths of gay men, hemophiliacs, and women who have had cosmetic surgery. The novel unfolds with her explorations into the connections among these deaths, but it also explores Yolanda’s relationship with a gay couple, one of whose members has AIDS, the growing romantic relationship between her and Marina Lomas (who has run away from an abusive husband with her small daughter), her relationship with her father, Crescienco.
Crescienco, employed as a gardener for Eliana Townsend (whom he loves and who still has the scars from her cosmetic surgery), watches her slowly die from some mysterious and debilitating disease. Finally Yolanda convinces the hospital that her hunches about the mysterious AIDS virus having infected the blood supply are correct.
Harlan Jane Eagleton, a faith healer, tells the story of her evolution from being a rock star's manager and beautician into healing. She travels from tank town to tank town ("on account of them water tanks") performing faith healings. The novel begins at the end of the story and loops forward to where her story begins, Harlan Jane's first faith healing.
In the process, readers are given accounts of her life as manager of the rock star, her love affair with a paranoid German lover, and her former husband, a medical anthropologist who travels and studies in Africa. We hear about Harlan Jane also from Nicholas, her assistant, who sometimes narrates what happens at the healings.
The adolescent Estrella labors with her farmworker family in the fields of California. Her mother, abandoned by Estrella's father years before, has married an older man who cares for the family but yearns for his home in Mexico. Enduring backbreaking work, the family lives the peripatetic lifestyle of migrant workers, including substandard housing, low wages and significant health risks.
The family extends itself to Alejo, whose only local family is a cousin close to his own age. Alejo and Estrella fall in love. Alejo is sprayed by a crop duster one day in the field, sickens, and is cared for by Estrella and her family. Eventually he becomes so sick they must take him to the community clinic and, later, to the hospital, presumably to die.
North American midwife, Kate Banner, has been living and working in Nicaragua for 14 years and after losing a patient following a difficult birth (the terrified young woman gives birth in the bottom of a swamped wooden boat), Kate decides to return home. She first stops in Guatemala to see old friends and instead meets (and eventually falls in love with) a priest from New Orleans and his household, including a mute street child, Marta, and a Mayan woman who becomes a political activist in search of her husband.
Staying longer in Guatemala than she had planned, Kate's life becomes deeply intertwined with theirs. She ends up making a home with a wide assortment of people in "Hummingbird House," a place where mothers and children come for medical help ["children with emphysema who since birth have breathed in woodsmoke from the indoor cooking fires. . . . We deliver babies. Los milagros. We scold the mothers about too much sugar, too much soda pop. . . . We see with quite clear eyes the war beneath the wars. If you pass this story along, make sure you get it straight. . . Do not walk away in sorrow. Do not be consoled" (326).]
The well-known and mysterious "psychist" and former African king, N. Frimbo, is found dead one night in his chair at the conjure table. What appears to be a murder is investigated by Detective Perry Dart of the Harlem police force and Dr. John Archer, his friend. Archer had been the physician summoned by Frimbo’s clients when one of them found he was speaking to a dead man.
The plot becomes more complex when Frimbo’s corpse disappears and returns as Frimbo, living. Declaring that he has control over his mind to such an extent that he can return from the dead, Frimbo nevertheless was attacked by someone for some reason and the detective and doctor proceed to find out who and why..
A story with roots in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Mama Day recounts the lives of Miranda, "Mama" Day, her sister Abigail, Abigail's grown granddaughter, Ophelia (Cocoa), and her love affair and marriage to George. Told in the voice of George (from the grave), Cocoa's voice, and an omniscient narrator's voice, the novel explores the tragic past of Mama Day's forebears as well as the present in which Mama Day functions as healer and wise woman of the small community just off the coast of Georgia.
Among other things, Mama Day helps Bernice heal from misuse of fertility drugs and helps her conceive a baby through a combination of natural medicine and "helping nature out." Cocoa and George court in New York, marry, and eventually visit Willow Springs during which time the obsessively jealous Ruby poisons Cocoa with nightshade and works a spell on her that causes her to come quite near death.
A powerful storm strands George and Cocoa in Willow Springs when the bridge goes out. George cannot believe the cause of Cocoa's illness and the means of her cure and dies in the process of trying to help her. His sacrifice and Mama Day's healing powers combine to effect Cocoa's healing. The novel is constructed as a conversation between George's spirit and Cocoa (and a narrator), looking back years after the event actually took place.
Set in the 1920s, Tracks is the chronicle of the Anishinabe community in North Dakota and the struggle for land and the continuance of their tradition and beliefs that undergird the heterogeneity of their tribal society in the face of shifting U.S. policies. Told in the counterpointing voices of Nanapush, a tribal elder, and Pauline Puyat, a mixed-blood member of the community, the novel describes the intertwining lives of Fleur Pillager, Nanapush, Pauline, and their families; the horrible losses from epidemics, as well as the powerful love circulating among the community, and their resistance to cultural and political domination.
While these issues occupy much of the story, Pauline’s decline into an excessive and destructive religious asceticism is also a central part of the plot. Pauline’s internalized racism (she "would not speak our language" [p.14]) takes its shape in her hatred of her own body and her fascination with death ("I handled the dead until the cold feel of their skin was a comfort, until I no longer bothered to bathe once I left the cabin but touched others with the same hands, passed death on" [p. 6]). She ends up in a convent inventing new ways to torture herself as she listens to Jesus tell her she is not really Indian.
In contradistinction to Pauline are Nanapush and Fleur, who resist dominance and claim their identities in magnificent ways. In one scene, Nanapush refuses to allow a doctor to treat his granddaughter’s severely frostbitten foot with amputation, knowing that "saving [her] the doctor’s way would kill [her]." Nanapush nurses her himself, saving the foot and telling her stories as a way to walk her through the pain of healing.
This is a prose poem told in the voice of a homeless person who is battling with grief and loneliness ("the houseguest who eats everything and refuses to leave") and hoping for good weather. The speaker of the poem, while dealing with the heaviness of grief and loneliness, also makes "a song for bad weather so we can stand together under our leaking roof, and make a terrible music with our wise and ragged bones."