Mama Day Summary and Study Guide

Gloria Naylor

Mama Day

  • 49-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 2 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a PhD in English Literature
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Mama Day Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 49-page guide for “Mama Day” by Gloria Naylor includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 2 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Ritual and Liminality.

Plot Summary

Gloria Naylor’s 1988 novel, Mama Day, explores the history and folklore of Willow Springs, a mysterious fictional town located on an island somewhere between South Carolina and Georgia. Readers quickly get the impression that there is more to Willow Springs than meets the eye, and the novel continues to expand on this liminality, or feeling of being in between, that characterizes the town. The point of view repeatedly shifts between three characters: Ophelia “Cocoa” Day, George Andrews, and an unnamed, third-person narrator. The third person narrator is omniscient, meaning the narrator knows the experiences and inner thoughts of all the characters, and the novel follows this point of view mostly to illustrate the thoughts of Miranda Day, or Mama Day, the novel’s titular character.

Mama Day opens with a prologue that provides some background information on Willow Springs and its surrounding mythos. Readers learn about the legend of Sapphira Wade, a slave sold to Bascombe Wade, who was supposedly infamous for “extreme mischief and suspicions of delving in witchcraft” (9). According to legend, Sapphira bore Bascombe Wade seven sons before killing him under mysterious circumstances, and she has earned a supernatural reputation among the locals: “She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand” (10). In fact, it is taboo to even mention the name of Sapphira Wade in Willow Springs. Mama Day is a direct descendant of Sapphira and has a similar reputation for possessing supernatural powers; as a result, she carries quite a bit of clout in the Willow Springs community.

After the Prologue, Naylor splits the book into two large parts, instead of chapters. Part 1 opens in New York City, where Cocoa interviews with George Andrews for a position at his engineering company. Before she can start work, though, Cocoa must return to Willow Springs to visit her grandmother, Abigail Day, and great aunt, Miranda. During Cocoa’s brief stay in Willow Springs, readers are exposed to a bit more of the town’s supernatural mythos. For example, Cocoa is picked up at the airport by a Dr. Buzzard, whom Miranda calls “nothing but an out-and-out bootlegger and con man” (87), and whose “hoodoo” powers provide a counterpart to Miranda’s own. Upon Cocoa’s return to New York, and although they get off to a rocky start, she and George soon begin dating. Meanwhile, in Willow Springs, Miranda’s neighbor, Bernice Duvall, has a severe reaction to fertility pills she has taken in an attempt to get pregnant. Although Miranda is able to use a home remedy to heal Bernice, she ambiguously refers to having to go to the “other place,” a seemingly supernatural location that remains shrouded in mystery for the novel’s first part. Readers also learn of the tense relationship between a Willow Springs local named Junior Lee and his lover, Ruby, a woman who shares Miranda’s reputation for supernatural abilities. Ruby is infamous in the community for using her abilities for mischief and manipulation, allegedly “working roots” (159) on Junior Lee to make him fall in love with her and leave his girlfriend, Frances.

Cocoa and George eventually fall in love and get married. About five years later, the two visit Abigail (who is Cocoa’s grandmother) and Miranda in Willow Springs. Junior Lee invites Cocoa to see a musician with him, but Miranda forbids it, as she is afraid of what a jealous Ruby might do in retribution. Sure enough, at a dinner party that Abigail and Miranda throw in celebration of Cocoa and George’s marriage, Junior Lee lies to Ruby, telling her that Cocoa had come on to him. Ruby invites Cocoa to her home, claiming to want to apologize for Junior Lee’s behavior, and braids a poisonous substance into Cocoa’s hair. The poison causes Cocoa to suffer horrific hallucinations, and she becomes gravely ill. When Miranda later discovers that Ruby was responsible for Cocoa’s illness, she seeks vengeance by scattering a mysterious silver substance around Ruby’s property, which causes the house to be struck by lightning and destroyed.

Meanwhile, a powerful hurricane strikes Willow Springs and destroys the only bridge connecting the island to the mainland, effectively preventing George from getting professional medical help for Cocoa. Instead, he must rely on Miranda’s home remedies, of which he—being a man motivated by rationality and logic—is skeptical, to say the least. Despite the urgings from other characters to seek help from Miranda at the “other place,” George remains determined to find a way off the island. He becomes desperate to save Cocoa’s life, so he relents and follows Miranda’s instructions—which he dismisses as “mumbo-jumbo” (486)—to go to her hen house and “come straight back with whatever you find” (486). At the hen house, George struggles in vain to find something to return to Miranda. In the process, he suffers serious injuries and dies when his heart gives out. Over the next three months, Cocoa recovers from the poison and moves to Charleston, South Carolina, where she eventually starts a family with another man but never forgets about George.

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Prologue