Friendship is perhaps one of the greatest relationships between two women. We have no say in the matter when it comes to family. But with friends, we choose who we want to let into our lives. Friendship is essential to the ties that bind the community together. Having someone that you know and trust can make difficult times easier to deal with. In Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, all of the women have faced struggles that have led them to Brewster Place.
Despite the trials, tribulations, and adversities that these women faced, they proved to be strong-willed and determined: “They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place. They came, they went, grew up, and grew beyond their years. Like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story” (5). Of the seven stories and women featured in Naylor’s novel, no friendship is as important or realistic than that between Mattie and Etta Mae. They are allies in a common struggle and are essential to each other’s survival.
Throughout the novel, Mattie serves as a friend and guide to Etta. She proves that true friendship knows its boundaries and limits, yet a true friend is always there in times of need.
Mattie Michael’s journey to Brewster Place begins when she is a teenager. She leaves her home in Rock Vale, Tennessee because of an unplanned pregnancy and for an uncertain future. She flees to escape her overprotective father’s rage over her refusal to disclose the name of her child’s father. Mattie finds herself staying with a friend for a while, but it does not last long. She eventually leaves the oppressive South and journeys to the North. Mattie moves in with Miss Eva, a kind stranger who takes in Mattie and her son Basil. Mattie’s attachment to Basil grows stronger with each passing day.
She is extremely protective of her son. Everything she does is for Basil. She works, cooks, and cleans so that he will have a good life. Once Miss Eva passes away, Mattie has a difficult time raising Basil on her own. She lets him do as he pleases without consequence. Like so many women, Mattie wants to be needed. Her only desire is for Basil to need her in his life: “God had given her what she prayed for-a little boy who would always need her” (52). This desire to be needed consumes Mattie’s life. It drives her to reach out to people.
When Basil reaches adulthood and gets into trouble, Mattie will do anything to make things better for him. However, her heart is broken when her one true love, Basil, leaves town and she loses her house as a result of it. The one she wanted to protect, more than anything, is the source of her suffering. This event causes great pain and sorrow for Mattie. Inevitably she is forced to move. This turn of events leads Mattie to Brewster Place, to a new beginning and a place where through her nurturing, she impacts the lives of many others, especially Etta.
Etta Mae Johnson is a longtime friend of Mattie’s. She is the first person Mattie meets in Brewster Place, but she soon leaves in search of a better life and a husband. Etta is a woman who refuses to play by the rules. She is a free spirit who “challenged the right of the game to exist” (59). She rebels against everything she does not believe in. Etta and Mattie are complete opposites, yet they remain friends. When Etta Mae returns to Brewster Place she seemingly does not have a care in the world. She appears to be confident and independent: “Slowly she carried herself across the street-head high and eyes fixed unwaveringly on her destination” (57).
Etta hides behind the fancy clothes and car and tries to convince the outside world that everything is fine. She is unlike anyone else in Brewster Place. To those who do not know her, Etta appears to have it all. But Mattie knows differently. Etta is aware of the fact that Mattie knows the “real Etta.” Just being in Mattie’s presence gives Etta a sense of calmness and liberty:
She breathed deeply of the freedom she found in Mattie’s presence. Here she had no choice but to be herself. The carefully erected decoys she was constantly shuffling and changing to fit the situation were of no use here. Etta and Mattie went way back, a singular term that claimed co-knowledge of all the important events in their lives and almost all of the unimportant ones. And by rights of this session, it tolerated no secrets. (58)
The friendship that they share is deep and real. They complement each other. There is nothing that the other does not know about. When she is with Mattie, Etta has no reason to pretend. And even if she did, it would be pointless. Mattie knows her inside and out. With Mattie, Etta is able to be herself, for a change.
Despite her ability to put her guard down and be herself with Mattie, Etta soon returns to the life she knows best. To Etta, love is like a game. She enjoys the chase and prides herself in being a “player”. Etta only feels complete when she is with a man to provide her with security. She begins her search while at church with Mattie. Etta sets her sight on her newest conquest, Reverend Woods. Once again Etta is looking for a man to love and to validate herself.
She has been hurt in the past, but she continues to play the game. When Etta wants to go out with Reverend Woods, Mattie knows that it is not a good idea, but she does not say a word to her: “Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over”(70).
Mattie recognizes this and realizes that being a true friend sometimes means not doing or saying anything. Mattie allows Etta to throw herself into a new relationship with Reverend Moore. Etta is surprised that Reverend Moore also has ulterior motives. He also likes to play games and he is better at it than Etta. In fact, he admires Etta’s skill, but he knows the game better than she does: He marveled at how excellently she played the game. A less alert observer might have been taken in, but his survival depended upon knowing people, knowing exactly how much to give and how little to take….Oh, yes. Let her win a few, and then he would win just a few more, and she would be bankrupt long before the sun was up. (71)
Both Reverend Moore and Etta try to use each other. However, Reverend Moore is the successful one because he leaves Etta “bankrupt.” When Etta comes to the realization that Reverend Moore has played her as she has played so many others in the past, she admits to herself that she is tired of the way things had been and tired of the way things continued to be. Although she appears to be looking for a man to provide for her financially, she is really in search of true love. The one thing she truly desires, to love and to be loved by someone, seems unattainable to her.
When Etta feels that she has hit rock bottom, Mattie is there for her. Etta knows that her night with Reverend Woods is nothing more than sex. Once again a man leaves her empty. However, with Mattie’s friendship, she realizes that there is a light at the end of the tunnel: “She noticed there was a light under the shade at Mattie’s window….Mattie was playing her records!” (74). Mattie is waiting up for Etta when she returns from her date. She tries to listen closely to the song, but realizes that the song does not matter. It is the fact that someone is waiting up for her that brings her such joy. Etta then realizes that the love she often sought in a man was right upstairs in the love and comfort of her best friend.
Mattie cares enough to wait for Etta. The light in Mattie’s window provided a way back for Etta. Etta and Mattie’s lives have taken two totally different paths, yet they both find themselves and each other on Brewster Place. Mattie provides the security and comfort that Etta seeks in her meaningless relationships with men. Throughout her journey, Etta has lost herself, but when she sees the light in the window, she is led back on track. Mattie is there for Etta when she needs her. She is a true friend, and on that night, she makes a difference in Etta’s life.
Mattie Michael has been hurt in the past and uses the knowledge she has acquired as a weapon of survival. She often shatters the idealistic fantasies that Etta has built for herself. Mattie often counsels Etta about her relationship choices. She tries to warn her, but in the end allows her to make her own mistakes. Etta Mae has loved one man too many. When she arrives at Brewster Place, she feels defeated. She tries to hide this by continuing to play the games that she always has, but Mattie sees through her façade.
Naylor’s portrayal of the friendship between Mattie and Etta exemplifies the sustaining power of the female friendship. When the love between man and woman fails, the friendship is still there. With Mattie’s love and guidance, Etta Mae is forced into realizing that the love she longs for is attainable. Not only is in attainable, but it has been there all along. She finds light, love, and comfort in her friendship with Mattie.