Small slights piled up into an upside down pyramid. This was Maud Martha Brown’s life from the moment she was born. Despite her steadfast sympathy for her father and his decision to “remain a simple janitor” over the cries of everyone else telling him to get a better job, her father showed a clear preference for her sister with her nicely tamed hair and the dainty way she ate. Despite her defense of her small brother against the neighborhood bullies, her brother let the front door slam in Maud Martha’s face. And now that she had recently become a young married woman, she sensed too that her new husband, Paul, would have preferred a wife with lighter colored skin. Their new home was just one more disappointment.
She looked around and could see nothing to recommend the apartment. Ugly furniture stained the kitchenette’s two rooms, only one out of the three burners on the gas stove worked, and the bathroom was outside the door, down the hall, one she had to share with four other families. And while Maud Martha tried to make the best of things, tried to see how to change the rooms into something she could be proud of, the building’s janitor said, no. No the furniture could not be moved out so that she and Paul might buy a sofa and chest and chair, nice green drapes and a green rug on a monthly payment plan. Maud Martha lost heart. Everything around her was awash with the color gray: the odors of people’s bodies, the feelings of tedium and sorrow, and the large and small aggravations that emanated from behind all the closed doors in the place.
And here she was, staring at a mouse she just caught in a small trap. One more gray thing. Running around the apartment for weeks, the mouse, she’s certain, had found it an amusing game of hide-and-go-seek. But Maud Martha was not amused. As she studied the small creature, and looked into its black eyes, she could see the mouse “seemed to understand that there was no hope of mercy from the eternal enemy, no hope of reprieve or postponement—but a fine small dignity.” Maud Martha wondered what else the mouse might be thinking: about a puny daughter left unfed, a young son left uneducated, housecleaning left undone? She couldn’t endure these thoughts and so she opened the trap, and said, “Go home to your children…[t]o your wife or husband.” And the mouse took off.
Out of that small gesture came a flash of recognition that “[a] life had blundered its way into her power and it had been hers to preserve or destroy. She had not destroyed. In the center of that simple restraint was—creation. She had created a piece of life.” And Maud Martha thought, “Why, I’m good! I am good.” In a mouse she found her own self-worth.
“Maud Martha Spares the Mouse” and “The Kitchenette,” compressed and retold here, are two of the thirty-four vignettes that appear in the award-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel, published in 1953. While the stark reality of being black in 1940s Chicago lies close to the surface of Maud Martha, the novel’s grace and lyricism will sweep you away. Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.