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.


Mama Day has several points that are relevant to medicine, not the least of which is the remarkable partnership between Mama Day and the inland physician, who function as collaborators with a great deal of mutual respect. Everyone in the community knows about Mama Day "beyond the bridge" (on the mainland) and when she calls Dr. Smithfield, they know it must be urgent.

With excellent diagnostic skill, Mama Day performs internal and external exams with ease and treats illnesses with herbal medicine and common sense. "Although it hurt [Smithfield's] pride at times, he'd admit inside it was usually no different than what he had to say himself–just plainer words and a slower cure than them concentrated drugs" (p. 84). The Mama Day character juxtaposed against those of Dr. Buzzard, the charlatan "medicine man," and Ruby, who works the spell on Cocoa, creates interesting questions about what "alternative medicine" is, as well as questions about what kind of medicine is validated in Western society and what is dismissed.

The question of Cocoa's illness is fascinating. George thinks it is "brain fever;" Cocoa thinks it is a virus at first;" Mama Day knows it is nightshade poisoning, but also knows it is more than that. Cocoa's symptoms change as she experiences more and more hallucinations, and readers are tempted to think what Cocoa experiences as worms eating her away from the inside are simply that, and the horrible stench is simply an infection until, after having sex with her, George finds one of the worms on his penis. What caused Cocoa's mysterious illness and her healing are never answered, compelling readers to consider the extent to which the body's mechanisms of illness and healing remain a mystery.


Random House: Vintage

Place Published

New York



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