[Caribbean Literature]

A Suffering Savior: The Trials of Ella in Erna Brodber's Louisiana

Part Three: Ella's Tribulations

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

Despite her joy in connecting with the spirits of Mammy King and Lowly, or aiding Ben in his journeys through his past, Ella suffers throughout Louisiana. Even during her first vision, the one that marked her entrance in into the spirit world of Mammy and company, she resisted and struggled so much (though unconsciously) that she fell bed-ridden for weeks. Frequently in the novel her health confines her to her bed or to the house, limiting her to the sphere of the home and to a certain extent shutting out the outside world.

Ella must pay with more than her health for her talent in healing through the spiritual world. She abandons (though willingly) her career as a potential social worker, even to the point of gaining the historical reputation (as the introduction explains) of a petty thief for the tape recorder which she unsuccessfully tried to return. In addition, Ella gives up her name, taking the name instead of Louisiana which suggests both her existence as a communal figure, and her presence as bridge between the Louisianas of the United States and of Jamaica. And despite the fact that an investigation of her own past (a past rooted in the Louisiana of Jamaica) merges into her investigation of Mammy and the others, still she risks losing her own identity to aid the community:

Two days of listening and writing, punctuating, paragraphing. Not what I am looking for to complete my crossword puzzle but who am I? I merely listen and transcribe. After this, a blank. Nothing more. (113)

In her searches into the history of St. Mary's, in delving deeply into the lives of other people, Ella finds herself on the point of being lost, of her own personality disappearing even as she rejuvenates those of others.

But perhaps even more tragic, Ella seems to give up any hope of passing on her own accomplishments to the future world for this role of scribe. She never bears children. Disappointed allusions to her failure to produce offspring dot the text, though it remains unclear whether the blame falls on her or on her husband:

Are female prophets allowed to have children?... Things aren't exactly flushy around here but we are managing. We are even thinking of finding a house of our own. Perhaps then the child will come. Meanwhile I wait for all things. (106-7)

Ten years of marriage to this lover and no need for maternity wear. "I wouldn't make a good father anyhow," he says. "I wouldn't give up my lifestyle." He does travel a lot..."Where would you get the time to be a single mother?" he asks me. Truly I am busy. (129)

Despite the potential hope that she could pass on her wisdom and her story posthumously, as Mammy and Lowly have done with her, still Ella seems to find no substitution for children, struggling through the novel with her inability to reproduce. She cannot reconcile the roles of "prophet" and "mother" in order to find success in both, and ultimately the role of the seer claims her, takes away her abilities in the other role.

Brodber's protagonist returns to this theme of a torn existence between spheres throughout the novel. The dual nature of her existence comes across in passages such as this:

I had arrived. Passed through my rite of passage with flying colors. I had broken through that membrane and was in, ready and willing to be and see something else. Transform, change, focus...I was a woman among women....Afternoons I turned myself into Reuben's woman. (52)

Here her account of her spritual passage seems to embrace a new measure of womanhood for Ella, symbolized by the breaking of the membrane and emerging into a world of women. But she interrupts her passage by turning herself into "Reuben's woman", by forcing herself back into the role of domesticated woman, one who cooks and cleans for her husband as he works in the "real world". "Reuben's woman" could not exist solely as "a woman among women". Ella's passages back and forth between this domestic sphere and the spirit world in which she conducts her own work fills much of the novel. And she seems resigned to limit herself to such domains despite crossing boundaries (of life and death) which few humans could even conceive of:

It [Mardi Gras] was great. I never left the stoop but it was great. Perhaps I'll be on the road next year. No. That's Reuben's domain. I'll get more involved with the planning and the backstage work. (107)

Ella here sounds much like women of traditional West Indian novels, women like Eva of Earl Lovelace's The Wine of Astonishment, who though she plays an instrumental role in holding her family together nonetheless always takes a backseat, supporting role to her husband Bee. The question arises, why? Why should a savior such as Ella be relegated to such a struggle? Why should she find herself unable to reconcile her divergent desires towards the public and private spheres?


Brodber, Erna. Louisiana: a novel. London: New Beacon Books, 1994.

A Suffering Savior
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