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Gathering Home

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Cal Gaines’s decision to run for a congressional seat has a minor impact on the voters of an Alabama congressional district but a profound impact upon the lives of an extended family. Most immediately affected is his stepdaughter Whitney, who joins Cal’s campaign staff and witnesses the sometimes angry gulf between the religious left and the religious right. The campaign introduces her to Francy, an anorexic but feisty secretary who teaches Whitney how to tackle the world. She also meets Nat, a young steelworker and skillful campaign manager. Gradually, Nat falls in love with Whitney as she grows and transforms before his eyes.

Much of the transformation results from Whitney’s successful search for her birth father. He is Sam Kirby, a noted New York cartoonist. Through tentative letters, Whitney and Sam explore each other’s contrasting lives. Whitney lives in a loving Baptist family, proud of its native South’s faith and heritage. Sam is an agnostic and an open homosexual who dislikes his homeland’s legacy of bigotry.

Sam’s mother Eva takes Whitney much more quickly to heart than does Sam. Knowing her granddaughter vicariously, through the letters Sam passes on, Eva unhesitatingly weaves Whitney into fabric of her daily life. Eva--homemaker, gardener, caretaker of a dying friend--believes in roots and urges Sam to embrace Whitney, not to study her from afar. Supported by his lover Aaron, Sam returns to Alabama and risks a visit to Whitney.

GATHERING HOME is a disappointing novel. The characters, attractive in outline, disappoint in detail. The author frequently describes them engaged in anxious self-reflection but seldom shows their behavior. The reader is left without the information to judge whether the character’s self-understanding is accurate. Thus even the major characters seem remote and cold. Covington forgets the novelist’s first rule: dramatize important events. The reader knows the prologue and the epilogue to crucial events but seldom witnesses the event itself.

GATHERING HOME has its heart in the right place; it stands for family, tolerance between opposites, and understanding across generations. It will please adolescents and adults who enjoy uplifting, positive outcomes. It will not please those who expect a narrative to entrap, to grip, and to delight readers with conflict and confrontation.