Gloria Naylor's third novel, Mama Day (1988) details the lives of the title character, also called Miranda Day, and her great-niece, Cocoa (Ophelia). With sections set in New York City and on Willow Springs—a barrier island that is due east of the border between South Carolina and Georgia and actually in neither state—Naylor creates a magical world set against a background of family history and unique geography.
Following an elaborate map of Willow Springs, a family tree of the Day lineage, and a bill of sale for the most important ancestor, Sapphira Wade, Mama Day begins with a prologue giving the pedigree of the island and its inhabitants, dating back to 1799. Naylor writes the prologue in the conversational, colloquial voice of Willow Springs itself, a narrator that returns later. From its current vantage point of August 1999, the prologue reaches back to 1823, the time that Sapphira Wade seized power from the white landowner, Bascombe Wade (whom she killed). Sapphira also convinced Bascombe Wade to deed all of Willow Springs to his former slaves and her descendants, who still own the land in 1999.
The first main section of Mama Day begins with Cocoa's frustrated job search in New York City just before she returns home to Willow Springs. While interviewing for a clerical position in an engineering firm, Cocoa meets and immediately dislikes George Andrews. However, apparently because of Mama Day's magical intervention, George and Cocoa begin to date. Their courtship starts gradually with George showing Cocoa New York City and also educating her about its ethnic richness. Even after their subsequent marriage, it is not until several years later that Cocoa and George return to Willow Springs together. In the interim Cocoa visits her grandmother Abigail and Mama Day alone each August, and George goes on annual solo vacations following professional football.
When George and Cocoa do go to Willow Springs together, the action that begins part 2 of the novel, the main characters converge, resulting in Mama Day's climax during a violent storm. During this visit, rational George must confront the supernatural elements of the island's force, Mama Day's magical powers, and the idea that Cocoa's sudden desperately ill health comes from conjuring by an enemy. Yet George's upbringing as an urban orphan does not prepare him for the demands of this mythical realm. While his attempts to suspend his disbelief ultimately fail, resulting in his own fatal heart attack, George's sincere efforts help heal Cocoa, and Naylor implies that his sacrifice is necessary for her recovery.
Throughout Mama Day, Naylor presents three different narrators. Much of the novel involves Cocoa and George speaking in passages that occur after his death and within their separate and shared consciousness. Naylor narrates other parts of the novel in the omniscient voice of the island—with special emphasis on Mama Day, whose musings involve her premonitions and attempts to “listen” to the messages of her heritage. At the very end of the work Naylor's all-knowing narrator looks forward to Cocoa assuming the matriarchal role after Mama Day passes on.
Related content in Oxford Index
Gloria Naylor (b. 1950)