Study Guide

Mother Barker in Marked by Fire

By Joyce Carol Thomas

Mother Barker

Some people get stuck with one terrible mother, while others, like Abyssinia, basically get two totally awesome moms. Sure, Patience is Abby's biological mother, but Mother Barker is there from day one, loving the girl as her own and staying by her side through thick and thin.

In fact, though Patience is definitely a loving and reliable presence in Abyssinia's life, it's Mother Barker who really teaches her all she knows. From an early age, she takes Abby with her as she looks for medicinal plants:

Soon after Abby began to take her first steps, Mother Barker took her walking in the country through pastures of unfenced fields. She took Abyssinia on nature walks, hunting certain roots and leaves and specific barks on trees. She would spy a plant and say, "Abby, pull that root up and bring it here." (4.3)

Under Mother Barker's watch, Abby's education never ends. She teaches her to make her infamous pound cake and then, when Abby finishes high school, takes her on as a full-time student, teaching her how to heal and help her community members.

Someone to Watch Over Me

It isn't all official lessons about recipes and roots that Mother Barker passes on to Abby, though. She also gently guides the girl through the trickier moments in life. Perhaps the best example of this is when she reconnects Abby with her singing voice:

Sister Lightsey told Patience that Mother Barker had requested that Abby sing "Deep River" at the funeral.

"Are you sure?" Abby asked when Patience told her.

Then she remembered what Mother Barker had said about the Christmas program at Attucks. "Daughter, the music's still there. It's running through your would like a deep river." (26.4-6)

Never one to leave Abby without a helping hand, Mother Barker accomplishes two things in this posthumous moment: She gives Abby purpose at her funeral, and she brings Abby back singing, which they both understand to be Abby's gift from God. Even in death, Mother Barker tends to Abby, helping her find her footing.

Instinctively Awesome

If Mother Barker always seems to know what Abby needs, it's because Mother Barker seems to always know what's up. This woman is deeply connected to the world, intuiting what's happening—particularly to those she loves—in real time. When Abby is raped, Mother Barker immediately tunes into the fact that something terrible has happened:

Mother Barker saw them coming down the road.

"Trouble," she said, approaching the mother and daughter. (9.35-36)

Patience hasn't said a word, but Mother Barker knows; she can just tell. And we see her do this time and again. Heck, in the end, the woman predicts the scene of her own death:

The deceased had predicted the month and year of her death. She had told Abby the summer before, the summer her husband the foreman had gone on to glory. "On the eve of snow, I'm going to die. Death will come riding, will come riding on the third cloud of the storm. God'll be sending an extra light in the night, and it won't be the moon." (26.2)

Sure enough, this is exactly what happens. Throughout this book, we see women with a heightened connection to the world—it's a key part of their power in Marked by Fire—but Mother Barker is the grand matriarch of them all. As the town healer and midwife, she is even more attuned than most to the ways of the world. And as she recognizes a similar intuition in Abby, she sets her up to take her place as town healer once she's gone.