Gibbons begins her novel A Cure for Dreams with this quotation from W. T. Couch, regional director of the Federal Writers’ Project: “With all our talk of democracy it seems not inappropriate to let the people speak for themselves.” This philosophy marks Gibbons’s novels; she lets the characters, particularly the female characters, speak for themselves. With first-person narrators, Gibbons’s novels are driven mainly by voice. Language is well used. The characters do not always use all the correct forms of verbs and pronouns; however, their words carry weight. These words reveal and enliven the characters, who give life to the words. Gibbons loves language; it is apparent in the way she uses it to empower her characters who would otherwise have no resources.
Both Ellen Foster and A Cure for Dreams feature female first-person narrators. Ellen Foster is told from the point of view of ten-year-old Ellen. Forty-seven-year-old Marjorie Polly Randolph opens and closes A Cure for Dreams, but the voice of her mother, Betty Davies Randolph, makes up the majority of the narrative. These voices are undeniably southern, full of idiom and slang and influenced by the southern tradition of storytelling. This is seen clearly in A Cure for Dreams as Marjorie allows Betty’s voice to show the audience what kind of woman Betty was—and Betty shows the audience by relating anecdotes from her life. Oral history comes alive through the filter of Marjorie. Through this storytelling, Betty validates who she is and who her mother was, and, consequently, who Marjorie is. Likewise, in Ellen Foster, the otherwise powerless Ellen validates her experiences through her own voice, a voice that Gibbons so realistically creates; it is both naïve and knowing, much as is Ellen.
While the voices of Gibbons’s characters may be destinctively southern, her themes are not limited to such regional designation. For instance, a theme that shows up in both Ellen Foster and A Cure for Dreams is self-reliance. This concern is tied to some of the other major ideas that appear in these works. For instance, Ellen, the product of an abusive environment, learns to fend for herself. With a sick mother who eventually commits suicide and an alcoholic, volatile father, she must often feed herself, get herself ready for school, and learn to survive in her harsh environment. After Ellen’s mother dies, Ellen learns to intercept the money her uncle leaves in the mailbox each month. She saves some of it for food and bills and then puts a small amount aside for her father. In this way, she proves to be rather mature and resourceful for a ten-year-old.
For Christmas, Ellen even buys, wraps, and hides her own gifts to “find” on Christmas morning, realizing that no Santa Claus will mysteriously provide her with presents. On the following Christmas, she again acts as her own Santa Claus by delivering herself to the home of her new mother, her foster mother. She had previously been able to get herself out of everyday dangerous and unpleasant situations. In the act of approaching a local woman known to foster needy children, Ellen provides for herself on a much larger scale. She displays an incredible ability to use her wits to persevere.
Self-reliance is also a major theme in A Cure for Dreams, particularly as illustrated by Lottie O’Cadhain Davies, Betty’s mother and Marjorie’s grandmother. Lottie, like Ellen Foster, learns early in life that men cannot be counted on for comfort or protection. Lottie had seen her own mother stay in a marriage to an alcoholic man, raising several children mostly on her own and running a household as well as a farm. When her husband expects her to assume an equal share of farm work, she withdraws from him and makes a life for herself and Betty. She then creates a community of other women in the Milk Farm Road area. They gather at a local store, play cards for money, share stories, and generally support one another. As the community struggles through the Great Depression, these women do what they can for one another, Lottie often leading the way. In fact, Lottie’s self-reliance serves as a model to many of the women in the group, and they, especially Betty, become more self-sufficient as a result.
Another theme shared by these two novels is suicide, a subject with which Gibbons is familiar. Like Alice Batts, Gibbons’s mother, Ellen Foster’s mother commits suicide and leaves her young daughter to be raised by an alcoholic father. Ellen sees her mother take the overdose of heart medication, and she is even with her mother as she takes her last breath. Her attempts to save her mother have been thwarted by her father’s cruel threats and intimidation. With the death of her mother, Ellen is left alone in the world, yet she learns to survive.
In A Cure for Dreams, Charles Davies, Betty’s father, kills himself when the Depression threatens the success of his farm and gristmill. This act does not, however, send Betty and Lottie into deep mourning or serious financial difficulties; rather, it is almost liberating for Lottie, as she no longer has to argue with her husband over trivialities. He had long stopped being a companion to her, and he was never a loving, active father to Betty, so his death merely serves to highlight the power that women can find in themselves and in one another.
Overall, because of the abuse they suffer from or the hardships they face,...
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