Sue Ellen Bridgers Essay - Critical Essays

Bridgers, Sue Ellen

Introduction

Sue Ellen Bridgers 1942–

American novelist and short story writer.

In her work, Bridgers draws from her roots as a small town Southerner and reveals her fascination with family relationships. She has been generally praised for her vivid characterizations; her female characters are particularly outstanding, showing strength in their personal convictions and their ability to support and assist those around them.

In her highly acclaimed first novel, Home Before Dark, Bridgers relates the plight of a migrant family in the changing rural South through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old female protagonist. A teenage girl is also the main character in Bridgers's second novel, All Together Now, which explores the themes of loyalty and communication among various groups of people. Bridgers's recent novel Notes for Another Life focuses on a teenage brother and sister who have been abandoned by their parents.

Most critics agree that Bridgers's work demonstrates pervasive optimism without lapsing into sentimentality. Her characters, whether central or peripheral, are skillfully drawn and their problems and solutions are consistently believable.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68 and Something about the Author, Vol. 22.)

Barbara Helfgott

Reading a first novel is like meeting a stranger—one has no idea what to expect. We come prepared to accept the mildest of diversions, though we long for much more. We want to be stirred, involved and enlightened.

The home of ["Home Before Dark"] is a tobacco farm in Montreet County, N.C., to which James Earl Willis returns after an absence of 16 years. Those years have given him a wife, four children and a life of endless wandering as a migrant worker. Acting from some dimly realized compulsion to return to the world of his childhood, he brings his family to live in an old cabin on the family property, which now belongs to his brother.

The homecoming is experienced by each member of the Willis family in a different way. For James Earl, it represents a chance for self-renewal…. For the children, it offers the chance to explore a world they've fleetingly glimpsed from the back seat of a car. And for 14-year-old Stella Willis it means everything: "A place to store the secret Stella and draw her longings out slowly, carefully, one by one, and keep them safe."

Stella's longings, for all her road-wise knowledge, are not so different from those of other girls her age, and by the time the book ends, she is well on her way to fulfillment. She has learned a little about love and friendship, about keeping and letting go—about growing up.

No summary can convey the tremendous integrity of a book like "Home Before Dark." The author speaks with a voice that is intensely lyrical yet wholly un-selfconscious. Character and theme have been developed with such painstaking attention that each episode seems inevitable and right.

Barbara Helfgott, in her review of "Home Before Dark," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1976, p. 40.

Sally Holmes Holtze

[Home Before Dark is an] outstanding first novel…. The events are engrossing, to be sure, but the plot is secondary to the style. [Bridgers's] unique insights are expressed in profound metaphors, and she creates haunting images. Stella sleeps on a fancy mattress that is bloodstained from the day her grandmother shot herself; her father gave it to her because Stella had "'never seen a mattress with flowers on it.'" The character studies are thorough and concise; the author records equally well the emotions of a middle-aged man and a teen-aged girl, and she is able to explore the innermost thoughts of her characters within the confines of a few pages. Perceptive, masterful writing for mature readers. (pp. 165-66)

Sally Holmes Holtze, in her review of "Home Before Dark," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1977 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. LIII, No. 2, April, 1977, pp. 165-66.

JEAN McINTYRE

I have recently seen [Home Before Dark] for sale on a rack of adult fiction, which is where it belongs even if its author intended it for children. Its story entwines two problems, the Migrant Willis family's conflicts as the father attempts to settle again on his brothers' North Carolina farm, and sex as it embroils all the main characters from the aging spinster Maggie Grover to the barely adolescent Toby Brown. Though this story centers on fourteen-year-old Stella Willis, it is not so much about her as about the social and personal conflicts that come first as her mother Mae's obsessive urge to keep moving on fails to budge daughter and husband (until she actually appears to summon down the lightning strike which kills her), then as the impact of father and daughter unsettles two generations of neighbors. Stella provokes premature sexual love from Toby Brown and delayed sexual urges in Rodney Biggers, until Rodney's jealousy issues in violence against Toby and his own total human failure…. The main events take second place to the background commentary of Toby's parents, settled in an unobtrusive domestic resignation, of Anne Willis, whose marriage with Newton and subsequent life with him have come about by cool planning, of Jean Biggers, typically sure that love is mere sex and the sure path to ruin. Its focus on the sexual, its dominant interest in adult emotions (even as felt by those little more than children), and its shifting viewpoints as it moves from one mind to another make Home Before Dark a book for readers too mature to be called children. (pp. 94-5)

Jean McIntyre, in her review of "Home Before Dark," in The World of Children's Books (© 1978 Jon C. Stott), Vol, III, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 94-5.

Kate M. Flanagan

[As portrayed in Sue Ellen Bridgers's novel All Together Now, the] summer twelve-year-old Casey Flanagan spends at her grandparents'—while her mother is working and her father is fighting in the Korean War—is a time of growing self-awareness. A shy, sensitive girl, she is at first apprehensive about the arrangement but cheers up she meets Dwayne Pickens—a retarded man who was once a boyhood friend of her father's. Dwayne dislikes girls, but he easily mistakes Casey, with her short hair and jeans, for a boy. Anxious to have him as a friend, the girl convinces her family to keep her secret, and though she sometimes feels guilty about deceiving Dwayne, the two become inseparable. The narrative winds through a summer of family dinners, fishing trips, and outings to the track where Uncle Taylor races stock cars. Casey … is enfolded into the loving circle of family and friends, and in the course of the summer her refreshingly innocent personality touches them all. The thoughts and feelings of each character are revealed through shifting viewpoints as each in his own time learns that love must be based on truth and acceptance…. The characters—from good-natured, honest Dwayne to bumbling Hazard Whittaker—are remarkably individualized. The book is exceptional not only for its superb writing and skillful portrayal of human relationships but for its depiction of a small southern town, where everyone knows everyone and neighbors care enough to rally in times of trouble. (pp. 197-98)

Kate M. Flanagan, in her review of "All Together Now," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1979 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. LV, No. 2, April, 1979, pp. 197-98.

Sara Miller

[All Together Now is] a warm, well-written if overly sentimental narrative with slices of each character's feeling and motives, and a touchingly tentative romance between a never-married couple in their 50s. Seeing through so many eyes, readers lose Casey herself too often, and more important—lose a sense of dramatic tension. The summer experience becomes a kaleidoscope of emotional responses with heavy doses of a likable but undiluted philosophy of love.

Sara Miller, in her review of "All Together Now," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the May, 1979 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1979), Vol. 25, No. 9, May, 1979, p. 70.

Dana G. Clinton

The title of Sue Ellen Bridgers' newest novel, "All Together Now" is the final touch of perfection to an exceptional story…. It sets in motion the musical strains of emotion and memory which harmonize our lives just as they do this novel of a group of people in a small North Carolina town who grow together during a summer in the 1950s. Long after the story ends, the haunting force of harmony stays with the reader and attests to the power of the tale and the mastery of its teller.

Our major interest is in Casey, a tomboyish, curious and sensitive youngster sent to spend her 12th summer with her grandparents. Throughout the story we see Casey grappling with problems old and new….

...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Kirkus Reviews

[All Together Now is a] superior novel about a twelve-year-old's summer friendship with a 33-year-old man whose mind is that of a boy of twelve … and about her allowing him to believe that she's a boy because she knows he can't stand girls. It sounds like another of those worthy and sensitive problem stories, with a neat moral dilemma worked in. But this is different from the start. Duane Pickins is a real person, someone you can love and laugh at. Casey, too, is a real person, who might make you think of yourself at twelve even if you weren't a bit like her. And the other characters are far more than a supporting cast…. [This] is a real novel, recognizably a juvenile for its general good feeling and...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Dick Abrahamson

Home Before Dark and All Together Now quickly established Bridgers' reputation in the YA field and Notes for Another Life puts her at the head of the pack. In this latest novel, Bridgers introduces us to thirteen-year-old Wren and her older brother, Kevin. They live with their grandparents because their father is in and out of the state mental hospital. Their mother, after years of living with the ups and downs of a mentally ill husband, has chosen a career of high fashion and city life over Wren and Kevin.

Once again it is Bridgers' fine sense of characterization that makes her book work so well. The reader watches Kevin and Wren struggle with developmental tasks made more...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Janet French

The blurb suggests that [Notes for Another Life] is "a family chronicle for all ages." It would have been more accurate to describe it as a propaganda vehicle for female domesticity. Good women subordinate their talents and yearnings to the home and their children; all other paths lead to havoc. For a riveting story of four deserted children, lead readers instead to Cynthia Voight's marvelous, upbeat Homecoming….

Janet French, in her review of "Notes for Another Life," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1981 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1981), Vol. 28, No. 1,...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Joan L. Atkinson

[Notes for Another Life] is superbly written, with every word manipulated to count. Topics of contemporary interest—suicide, mental illness, divorce, living with loss—are placed in the context of family living so skillfully that they appear as universal rather than contemporary themes. There is genius in the development of so many rounded characters in a medium length novel. Sue Ellen Bridgers continues a pattern developed in Home Before Dark and All Together Now of portraying incredibly strong women, young and old…. Male characters, while less complex as a whole, are given individuality and effectiveness. Bill and Sam are sensitive and staunch support-givers; the minister is capable of...

(The entire section is 184 words.)

Diane C. Donovan

The devastating impact of mental illness upon family relationships is intimately explored in [Notes for Another Life]. (p. 317)

In focusing intimately upon each family member's personal struggles with [the father's] mental illness, the book moves away from the current spate of young adult novels which concentrate on the afflicted patient's inner struggles. It encompasses the lives and thoughts of one family so powerfully that readers are made aware of the special problems teenagers encounter when confronted with a family member's disability.

The author has succeeded in painting a portrait of mental illness that, for once, is not overburdened with melodrama and journalistic...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Joan L. Atkinson

Your reviewer's treatment of Sue Ellen Bridgers' Notes for Another Life [see excerpt above by Janet French] … so simplified a complex work that it makes the book sound like an issues novel. Far from being a "propaganda vehicle for female domesticity," Notes … says that family life is multi-faceted—a mix of love and loss, of responsibilities accepted and rejected, of forces controllable and out of hand, of disappointment and support. Kevin and Wren's mother, Karen, wants both emotional and physical distance from her children, apparently their father does too, though his mental illness obscures the distinction between what is willed on his part and what is fated by heredity. The novel does not assign...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Joseph O. Milner

[All Together Now] seems clearly out-of-step with most of the books of our day. The presence of the family, as it extends itself vertically and horizontally, and of the larger community run deep in the account of Casey's summer with her grandparents. In contrast, much of today's children's fiction reports the family as extinct or, if alive, merely meddling. As a part of this difference, Bridgers pays homage to powerful adults and attends to them sufficiently to allow her reader to feel both their silliness and their wisdom. Although she focuses on Casey and her relationship to the quick-spirited, but slow-minded, Dwayne Pickens, Bridgers's omniscient point of view carries her into the minds of folk who are...

(The entire section is 303 words.)