Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786
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 Gibbons as its first recipient. That year also saw the publication of her ambitious second novel, A Virtuous Woman, a tender tale narrated in alternating chapters by Ruby Woodrow, a forty-five-year-old woman dying of cancer, and Jack Stokes, Ruby’s husband, who is unable to cope with her fate. Jack Stokes, a patient, simple farmer, is one of Gibbons’s most engrossing male characters, who remains sympathetic even in his descent into alcoholism and death.
Gibbons’s third novel, A Cure for Dreams, is a complexly structured work, interweaving the tales of three generations of women. Most absorbing is the tale of the grandmother, Lottie, who, desperate to escape from her mother, Bridget, enters into a hasty marriage with Charles Davies, a cruel man who measures success only by material achievements. In experiencing and suffering from Davies’ cruelty, Lottie learns and thereby becomes stronger. A Cure for Dreams is a dark novel, for the “cure” of which it speaks is the simple act of living. The struggle of the three women, in the face of adverse conditions and lost opportunities, redeems them. Shortly after the publication of A Cure for Dreams, which won the PEN/Revson Award, Gibbons and her husband amicably divorced, and she received primary custody of their three daughters.
In Charms for the Easy Life, Gibbons expands and redefines her vision. She called the work “the first happy book I’ve written” and “the first book I’ve written happy.” Gibbons credits having had to rear her daughters and manage her career with having “become inside what [people] though I already was: independent, strong, forthright.” Those characteristics also describe Charlie Kate in Charms for the Easy Life, whose brash vitality gives the book an entrancing liveliness. Charlie Kate, the grandmother of Margaret, the narrator, is a country doctor who employs herbal remedies and other holistic treatments to cure her generally indigent but hardworking patients. Margaret aspires to be like her grandmother, of whom she says, “She had always said all she needed to say, and so there were no secret longings, no secret wishes and desires that had never been spoken.” The novel became Gibbons’s first best-seller. Soon after its publication Gibbons married Frank Ward.
Gibbons’s next novel, Sights Unseen, is a first-person reminiscence by Hattie Barnes of her mother Maggie’s struggles with manic-depressive disorder—an ailment from which Gibbons’s mother had suffered. The novel focuses on Hattie’s response to her mother’s actions, and her recollections reveal the weakness of Maggie’s husband, who encourages her indulgent and destructive relationship with his father. The novel’s strongest characters are Pearl Wiggins, the housekeeper, and Hattie’s brother Freddy, who deals with events in part by refusing to deal with them, but whose assistance proves invaluable to Hattie later on. The intensity and depth of Sights Unseen make it a dazzling example of Gibbons’s craft.
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