Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817
Kate Vaiden’s protagonist is an aging woman trying to exorcise the demons of her past. She needs to recount the events of her troubled life to the son she abandoned more than forty years ago, when he was four months old, to win his forgiveness. In piecing together her story, Kate discovers much about herself and reveals an impressive inner strength.
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In 1984, Kate Vaiden is recovering from cancer surgery. Her life-threatening cervical carcinoma causes her to reflect upon her life and makes her determined to find the son she, as a frightened, unmarried, ashamed seventeen-year-old in a small Southern town, left in the care of her aunt, Caroline Porter. Kate lives near Macon, North Carolina, where her son is reared, but she has suspended all contact with her family there.
From age eleven, Kate’s life is melodramatic. Price, however, succeeds in raising the story above its surface sensationalism by focusing on universal truths that direct Kate’s life. The only child of Dan and Frances Vaiden, Kate was reared by her Aunt Caroline, Frances’s sister.
Early in the novel, Kate has come with her mother from Greensboro, where they live, to Macon, the small town near the Virginia border where Frances was reared, for the funeral of cousin Taswell Porter, recently killed in a motorcycle accident. Frances’s husband, however, has refused to attend the funeral, and he is enraged when his wife insists on going. Kate learns late in her life that her father suspected Frances of having an affair with her cousin, Swift Porter, who would surely attend the funeral.
The day after Taswell’s burial, Swift asks Frances to go with him to check the grave. Dan Vaiden, smoldering with jealousy, has come to Macon and is stalking his wife. He follows her when she goes into the woods with Swift and, confronting her, fires his revolver, wounding her fatally before turning the gun on himself.
Kate, orphaned at age eleven, is overcome by sorrow, confusion, and guilt. She thinks that if she had accompanied her father when he went to look for her mother, as he asked her to, the deaths might have been avoided. She is too innocent to realize that if she had done so, she too might be dead. The events of this memorable day fester in Kate’s troubled mind and color her existence. Price, who in several of his other works has been intensely concerned with how the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children, clearly demonstrates that after the events Dan precipitated, Kate must bear a crushing burden from which she will never be free.
As a result of Kate’s early life, she has never been able to trust people. The shattering blow of her parents’ deaths heightens her distrust and makes her distant. When she is thirteen, however, Kate has an affair with a sixteen-year-old neighbor, Gaston Stegall. She grows to love Gaston. Just when Kate has begun to find some stability in a relationship, Gaston, now eighteen, joins the Marines. When he is killed during a training exercise, Kate becomes more withdrawn and suspicious than ever. Kate’s mother once made her a penny-show garden with a slogan, “People will leave you,” that seems prophetic for Kate. If the people she loves do not run away, death will snatch them from her.
Shortly after Gaston’s death, Kate is impregnated by Douglas Lee, a youth whom her cousin Walter has rescued from an orphanage and taken to Norfolk to live with him. Walter uses Douglas sexually; Douglas, defiant and retaliatory, impregnates Kate. Rejecting Walter’s suggestion that all of them live together in Norfolk after she bears the child, Kate sets out for Raleigh with Douglas.
Fearing, however, that living with Douglas will not work out, she bolts when the train stops in Macon, returning to Aunt Caroline, who sees her through her pregnancy. Kate then tracks down Douglas Lee, now a chauffeur to Whitfield Eller, a blind piano tuner in Raleigh. Soon, Eller is brutally attacked by an unidentified intruder—most likely Douglas, who disappears. Kate takes Douglas’s place chauffeuring Eller, who begins to have romantic inclinations toward Kate. Later, Douglas is found dead by his own hand in Eller’s bathtub.
Kate goes to Greensboro. She finishes high school by correspondence and works for the next forty years, never communicating with her family. As the novel closes, Kate has established contact with her son, now past forty, who has inherited Walter Porter’s house in Norfolk, where he lives and serves in the Navy. Kate is preparing to meet him and tell him her story. The novel ends before they meet. One thing, however, is clear: Kate Vaiden is facing realities that she could not face from the time her parents’ violent deaths robbed her of her childlike innocence and confirmed her inherent distrust of people.