Bertha Kaye Batts Gibbons, born on May 5, 1960, in the rural community of Bend of the River, Nash County, North Carolina, was the third child of Charles Batts, a tobacco farmer, and Alice, a housewife. Gibbons’s childhood came to an end in March, 1970, when her mother committed suicide. The nine-year-old girl then had to find a new home, first attempting to live with her abusive, alcoholic father, then shifting from the home of one relative to another. Eventually, she found comfort with her older sibling. Many of the experiences from Gibbons’s early life fueled Ellen Foster (1987), her first novel.
In 1978, Gibbons graduated from Rocky Mount High School and enrolled at North Carolina State University. While at North Carolina State, she became familiar with the work of Louis Rubin, a well-known professor of southern literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). She later transferred to UNC, where her dream of studying with Rubin became a reality; she enrolled in one of his courses in 1985. In Rubin, Gibbons found a mentor and an active supporter of her creative writing. The previous year, Batts had married Michael Gibbons. The chronic illness of their daughter, Mary, would cause Gibbons to leave UNC without taking a degree. Around that time, her manic-depressive disorder was diagnosed.
Ellen Foster, encouraged by Rubin and published by Algonquin Books, the company Rubin had founded, was met with...
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The driving force behind Gibbons’s work is voice. The characters and their stories become fully formed because they have words with which to give these notions life. Gibbons imbues her characters with a rich oral capacity; they do tell their stories because they can tell their stories. In this way, language almost becomes a theme, ranking in importance with self-reliance and community.
Kaye Gibbons was born Bertha Kaye Batts on May 5, 1960, in a rural Nash County, North Carolina, community known locally as Bend of the River, near the town of Rocky Mount. Her father, Charles Batts, was a tobacco farmer, and her mother was Alice Batts. Gibbons has a brother, thirteen years her senior, and a sister, nine years older.
In addition to the hardship of poverty, Gibbons also endured a childhood made tragic by her mother’s manic depression (bipolar disorder) and her father’s abuse and alcoholism. Her mother committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills in 1970; she was only forty-seven years old. Gibbons lived with her father for a short while until he died as a result of his drinking. After living with several relatives, she finally moved in with her older brother in Rocky Mount once he married. She attended public schools, beginning college at North Carolina State on a Veterans Administration scholarship, then transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in English but did not graduate.
Hospitalized for her own bipolar disorder in Raleigh, North Carolina, Gibbons continued to attend classes. During this time she also met her first husband, Michael Gibbons, whom she married on May 12, 1984. They had three daughters: Mary, born in 1985; Leslie, born in 1987; and Louise, born in 1989. In the summer of 1985, Gibbons took a course in southern literature with the renowned teacher and critic Louis Rubin. After reading widely in the literature of the region, she began a manuscript that was eventually published by Rubin’s firm, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Gibbons and her first husband were divorced in the early 1990’s, and in 1993 she married Frank P. Ward, a Raleigh attorney. They were divorced in 2002.
The novelist Kaye Gibbons established herself on the basis of short, intricately detailed works characterized by penetrating insights and a sophisticated use of often unsophisticated language. After the publication of her intense first novel, Ellen Foster, which was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters in 1987, she came to be regarded at the forefront of another “Southern Renaissance” in American fiction.
Bertha Kaye Batts began attending North Carolina State University in 1979 but left after two years and transferred to the University of North Carolina. In 1984, she married Michael Gibbons, and her first child was born a year later. That same year Louis Rubin, the noted critic and the publisher of Algonquin Books, after reading the first thirty pages of Ellen Foster, asked her to finish the book and offered to publish it.
Ellen Foster is a deeply moving novel about a young woman who, like Gibbons herself, has a mother who commits suicide and an alcoholic father. Ellen—unlike Gibbons, who spent her teenage years in the home of her older brother—is moved from place to place, never fitting in, until she moves in with “the Foster lady.” She guilelessly takes on the last name “Foster,” calling herself that throughout the narrative. Her friend and constant companion throughout her travail is Starletta, a young African American girl who serves as Jim to Ellen’s Huck Finn. The parallel with Mark Twain is appropriate, for the insight that Gibbons brings to the tale of Ellen’s journey and her development of a sense of self places Ellen Foster, like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), among the best realized of the coming-of-age novels of its time.
In 1989, North Carolina State University initiated its Author of the Year program and selected...
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