Kate Vaiden

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Every once in a while, by the alchemy of art or by sheer good luck, a writer creates a character who becomes, in the minds of thousands of readers, more than merely a figure in a book--becomes as unforgettably real as any flesh-and-blood person. Such a character is Kate Vaiden (her name rhymes with maiden), the protagonist and narrator of Reynolds Price’s sixth and finest novel.

Kate is fifty-seven--the year is 1984--as she sets out to tell her life story. The motive that gives urgency to the telling is laid bare in the novel’s first paragraph, though not until the closing pages is it fully understandable. Forty years before, a girl of seventeen, Kate left her baby boy, Lee, with her aunt and uncle and never came back. Now, prompted in part by a bout with cancer, Kate has learned where Lee is living; the book will be her “introduction” to her forty-year-old son.

The opening pages of Kate’s story skip quickly through her first eleven years--a happy childhood, ended when her father kills her mother and then himself. Price takes a considerable risk by starting with an event of such dramatic intensity; the danger is that the rest of the novel might be just a long anticlimax. It is not. Kate’s account leaves the reader emotionally wrung-out but deeply moved, having felt the weight of choices made and their irrevocable consequences.

Above all, it is Kate’s voice which sets this novel apart: fresh, pungent, down-to-earth or lyrical as the occasion demands. “Catholics,” she recalls, “were scarce as...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

Kate Vaiden

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

With the first page of this stunning novel the reader enters the mind and life of the title character, who becomes as real as one’s closest friend. Reynolds Price’s achievement in creating a believable female narrator should not be too surprising for readers of his earlier work, who will remember, among other characters, the appealing Rosacoke Mustian of A Long and Happy Life (1962). His accomplishment here is even greater, for Kate is a richer, more mature, more introspective creation, a character who commands sympathy and respect.

Kate freely admits in her opening words that “the best thing about my life up to here is, nobody believes it.” Price’s plot is, indeed, melodramatic in the extreme. Before Kate reaches her eighteenth birthday, she has endured her father’s fatal shooting of her mother and himself, the suicides of both the men with whom she has been intimate, and the birth of an illegitimate child. The measure of Price’s skill is that he is able to use these sensational plot elements to bring his reader’s attentions to his real concerns—how human beings deal with their choices, what control they have over their own destinies, and how the ties of compassion and caring bind them together.

The novel begins in 1984, when Kate is fifty-seven. As the reader discovers late in the book, she is recovering from cancer surgery, and she has, after forty years, decided to try to find the son she had abandoned when he was only four months old. The story she tells in her unforgettable voice is for him, for Lee. It is her explanation and her justification of her life and the choices she has made; as she tells the story, she explores again its meaning and her responsibility for what has happened to her.

The setting of Kate’s account is territory familiar to readers of Price’s earlier work: rural North Carolina and the nearby Piedmont cities of Greensboro and Raleigh, with journeys as far as Norfolk, Virginia. The scenes of Price’s childhood in Macon, North Carolina, are Kate’s—“scraggly spirea bushes” in the yard of her home, rocky creek banks, overgrown country graveyards. She rarely ventures farther than two hundred miles from her family, but for forty years they manage to be as remote from one another as if they lived on different continents.

The narrative begins with a death and a trip to a funeral—events that recur with appalling frequency in Kate’s early life. It is the death of her mother’s first cousin Taswell Porter in a motorcycle accident that sets off the first and most catastrophic of the incidents that determine her future. Eleven-year-old Kate and her mother, Frances, leave her father fuming at home in Greensboro while they go to Frances’ childhood home in Macon for the burial. Although Kate does not discover the real reason for Dan’s anger until many years later, she senses the tension between her parents and particularly Dan’s resentment of Frances’ attachment to her family: Caroline Porter, the sister who has been a mother to her; Caroline’s husband, Holt; and their son Swift, only a few years younger than his aunt.

On the day after the funeral, Swift whisks Frances off, ostensibly to check the flowers on his brother’s grave. Dan arrives unexpectedly and follows them into the countryside. Hours later, Kate is summoned from the dark garden where she has been sitting alone beside the tiny “penny garden” her mother made for her under the roots of a tree. Caroline forces Swift to tell the child what her instincts have already revealed. Dan and Frances are dead.

In their end is the shape of Kate’s whole future. She first feels guilt, believing that her parents’ quarrel was somehow her fault. If she had accepted her father’s invitation to go with him to find Swift and Frances, she thinks, she might have saved them. Then she feels a deep sense of abandonment, an emotion that is to condition many of her later actions.

Price characterizes Kate as an inherently lovable person. She is, throughout most of the novel, surrounded by people who want to care for her. Caroline and Holt take her in as their daughter after the death of her parents, and their black servant, Noony, soon appoints herself Kate’s adviser on sexual matters. Fob Foster, a middle-aged cousin, teaches her to ride, buys her a horse, and later gives her five hundred dollars with the instruction, “Make something of yourself.” Kate returns their affection, yet she always withholds something. Angry with Caroline over an apparently trivial matter, she tells her on the fateful afternoon when Dan and Frances die, “I’ll never trust anybody else.” Indeed, she never seems absolutely secure again.

The nearest Kate comes to real happiness is in her inarticulate relationship with Gaston Stegall. They become lovers when she is almost thirteen and he only three years older. They meet as often as they can in a secluded mossy spot not far from the creek where her parents died, and there is in their uncomplicated loving more security and contentment than she is to find again. Yet latent in that happiness, as in her happy childhood with Dan and Frances, is death. When Gaston is graduated from high school, he joins the marines and writes Kate of his plans to come home. Then, inexplicably, near the end of a training exercise that requires him to crawl under machine-gun fire, he stands up and is killed instantly. His death increases Kate’s sense that she is a kind of Jonah, a bringer of disaster on those she...

(The entire section is 2261 words.)

Kate Vaiden Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dewey, Joseph. “A Time to Bolt: Suicide, Androgyny, and the Dislocation of the Self in Reynold Price’s Kate Vaiden.” The Mississippi Quarterly 45 (Winter, 1991): 9-28. Dewey argues that Price’s portrait of Vaiden as a viable female character succeeds because of her disassociation from the limits of gender. He contends that Vaiden emulates male behavior in order to distance herself from her understanding of the female as passive, thereby transcending gender so that the author’s male voice speaks through Vaiden while not making her into a male.

Price, Reynolds. Learning a Trade: A Craftsman’s Notebooks, 1955-1997. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. Price’s notebooks offer a rare glimpse of the sometimes tortuous, often glorious creative process that a writer is compelled to engage in if he or she is serious about the craft. Price shares the observations and feelings that led to the writing of Kate Vaiden and some of his other novels.

Price, Reynolds. “Narrative Hunger and Silent Witness: An Interview with Reynolds Price.” Interview by Susan Ketchin. The Georgia Review 47 (Fall, 1993): 522-542. This interview focuses on Price’s religious beliefs and how his convictions influence his writing. Although he is sometimes regarded as a Christian writer, he tries to convey a nonjudgmental vision of the world and thus believes that the label is inappropriate.

Schiff, James A., ed. Critical Essays on Reynolds Price. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. This outstanding collection of critical essays from major literary figures and scholars, reviews, and previously unpublished material offers an in-depth view of Price’s work. Includes pieces on Kate Vaiden.

Schiff, James A. Understanding Reynolds Price. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. Schiff offers an astute critical analysis of Price’s essays, memoirs, poetry, drama, and biblical interpretations. An excellent source for understanding the whole spectrum of Price’s work, Schiff’s book features essays on individual novels, including Kate Vaiden.