Paule Marshall's second novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969) is thematically the culmination of almost all her concerns as a novelist. Written on the cusp of both the feminist and Pan-African movements, it concerns itself not only with personal as well as public revolution in terms of both revolt and coming full circle to self-actualization, but also ageism, Western hegemony, and nuclear proliferation. According to Marshall, it is her best-loved novel, and this is due in large part to the stunning delineation of the heroine, Merle Kimbona.
The novel concerns itself with Bourne Island, a tiny imaginary landscape set in the Caribbean. It is an island replete with contradictions that become part of a special development project instigated by the American-based Philadelphia Research Institute and carried out by one of its numerous divisions, the Center for Applied Social Research, in the hopes that it will bring this “backward” island into the twentieth century. Almost ironically, the island itself is nearly equally divided geographically. Half of it, Bournehills, wallows in poverty, while the other half, New Bristol, has taken advantage of corrupt modernization schemes and equally corrupt politics to bring itself into the modern era. It is the hope of these twentieth-century missionaries to bring profound political, social, and economic change to the island.
The protagonist of the novel, Merle Kimbona, is the link between these two disparate worlds, the past and the future. She is known and loved by both those who call for progress and those who fear for the destruction of a particular culture that that progress will more than likely obliterate. Merle is the thematic conduit through which these two opposing forces might eventually come together in the poverty stricken Bournehills. In fact, Merle is described in the novel as somehow being Bournehills itself. She represents a division that is not only a part of her own personal history but also the history of the island itself.
The Chosen Place, the Timeless People is perhaps Marshall's most political novel. In the narrative she weaves mini history lessons in the hopes that she as a writer might initiate a kind of healing in the psychological rift borne by blacks of the diaspora that has been brought about by the broken and divided history of African peoples located throughout the world. The heroic, ancestral figure of Cuffee Ned, the larger-than-life leader of a slave revolt, is one of the historical figures that Merle, as well as Paule Marshall as author, feels will help the people of Bourne Island, and black people in general, to reconstitute their historically and psychologically fragmented sense of self. She feels that by following his spiritual lead, there is nothing that can prevent the people, the “li’l fella,” from rising out of the muck and mire of political, social, economic, and historical oppression. To accomplish this, the people, like Merle herself, must come to terms with their fragmented past before they will be able to forge a viable future.
Joseph T. Skerrett Jr.,, “Paule Marshall and the Crisis of the Middle Years: The Chosen Place, the Timeless People,” in Callaoo 17–19 (1983): 69–73.Hortense J. Spillers, “Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World,” in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, 1985, pp. 151–175.