Kaye Gibbons American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2259

Gibbons begins her novel A Cure for Dreams with this quotation from W. T. Couch, regional director of the Federal Writers’ Project: “With all our talk of democracy it seems not inappropriate to let the people speak for themselves.” This philosophy marks Gibbons’s novels; she lets the characters, particularly the...

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Gibbons begins her novel A Cure for Dreams with this quotation from W. T. Couch, regional director of the Federal Writers’ Project: “With all our talk of democracy it seems not inappropriate to let the people speak for themselves.” This philosophy marks Gibbons’s novels; she lets the characters, particularly the female characters, speak for themselves. With first-person narrators, Gibbons’s novels are driven mainly by voice. Language is well used. The characters do not always use all the correct forms of verbs and pronouns; however, their words carry weight. These words reveal and enliven the characters, who give life to the words. Gibbons loves language; it is apparent in the way she uses it to empower her characters who would otherwise have no resources.

Both Ellen Foster and A Cure for Dreams feature female first-person narrators. Ellen Foster is told from the point of view of ten-year-old Ellen. Forty-seven-year-old Marjorie Polly Randolph opens and closes A Cure for Dreams, but the voice of her mother, Betty Davies Randolph, makes up the majority of the narrative. These voices are undeniably southern, full of idiom and slang and influenced by the southern tradition of storytelling. This is seen clearly in A Cure for Dreams as Marjorie allows Betty’s voice to show the audience what kind of woman Betty was—and Betty shows the audience by relating anecdotes from her life. Oral history comes alive through the filter of Marjorie. Through this storytelling, Betty validates who she is and who her mother was, and, consequently, who Marjorie is. Likewise, in Ellen Foster, the otherwise powerless Ellen validates her experiences through her own voice, a voice that Gibbons so realistically creates; it is both naïve and knowing, much as is Ellen.

While the voices of Gibbons’s characters may be destinctively southern, her themes are not limited to such regional designation. For instance, a theme that shows up in both Ellen Foster and A Cure for Dreams is self-reliance. This concern is tied to some of the other major ideas that appear in these works. For instance, Ellen, the product of an abusive environment, learns to fend for herself. With a sick mother who eventually commits suicide and an alcoholic, volatile father, she must often feed herself, get herself ready for school, and learn to survive in her harsh environment. After Ellen’s mother dies, Ellen learns to intercept the money her uncle leaves in the mailbox each month. She saves some of it for food and bills and then puts a small amount aside for her father. In this way, she proves to be rather mature and resourceful for a ten-year-old.

For Christmas, Ellen even buys, wraps, and hides her own gifts to “find” on Christmas morning, realizing that no Santa Claus will mysteriously provide her with presents. On the following Christmas, she again acts as her own Santa Claus by delivering herself to the home of her new mother, her foster mother. She had previously been able to get herself out of everyday dangerous and unpleasant situations. In the act of approaching a local woman known to foster needy children, Ellen provides for herself on a much larger scale. She displays an incredible ability to use her wits to persevere.

Self-reliance is also a major theme in A Cure for Dreams, particularly as illustrated by Lottie O’Cadhain Davies, Betty’s mother and Marjorie’s grandmother. Lottie, like Ellen Foster, learns early in life that men cannot be counted on for comfort or protection. Lottie had seen her own mother stay in a marriage to an alcoholic man, raising several children mostly on her own and running a household as well as a farm. When her husband expects her to assume an equal share of farm work, she withdraws from him and makes a life for herself and Betty. She then creates a community of other women in the Milk Farm Road area. They gather at a local store, play cards for money, share stories, and generally support one another. As the community struggles through the Great Depression, these women do what they can for one another, Lottie often leading the way. In fact, Lottie’s self-reliance serves as a model to many of the women in the group, and they, especially Betty, become more self-sufficient as a result.

Another theme shared by these two novels is suicide, a subject with which Gibbons is familiar. Like Alice Batts, Gibbons’s mother, Ellen Foster’s mother commits suicide and leaves her young daughter to be raised by an alcoholic father. Ellen sees her mother take the overdose of heart medication, and she is even with her mother as she takes her last breath. Her attempts to save her mother have been thwarted by her father’s cruel threats and intimidation. With the death of her mother, Ellen is left alone in the world, yet she learns to survive.

In A Cure for Dreams, Charles Davies, Betty’s father, kills himself when the Depression threatens the success of his farm and gristmill. This act does not, however, send Betty and Lottie into deep mourning or serious financial difficulties; rather, it is almost liberating for Lottie, as she no longer has to argue with her husband over trivialities. He had long stopped being a companion to her, and he was never a loving, active father to Betty, so his death merely serves to highlight the power that women can find in themselves and in one another.

Overall, because of the abuse they suffer from or the hardships they face, Gibbons’s female characters are survivors. Certainly their lives are not easy, yet they are able to build networks of support or discover inner strength and overcome adversity. Both Ellen and Lottie live in worlds where they essentially have no voice. Ellen is too young to matter, in a sense, and Lottie, a woman in the rural South of the 1920’s, is constrained by her gender. This is where Gibbons gives these characters their voices. Only through them can readers learn about their lives. Readers become witnesses to events, told by the people who know them best.

Ellen Foster

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

Ten-year-old Ellen watches her mother commit suicide, then struggles to find a new place to call home, finally finding security with her “new mama.”

Ellen Foster, Gibbons’s first novel, actually began as a poem written from the point of view of an African American girl (this girl would eventually become Starletta, Ellen’s best friend in the novel). After showing this poem to Louis Rubin, professor of southern literature at the University of North Carolina, Gibbons was encouraged to flesh out the work. It evolved into a novel, with many of the details taken from Gibbons’s own childhood.

The novel, told exclusively from the point of view of ten-year-old Ellen, immediately reveals that the narrator has had a less-than-idyllic childhood: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.” This opening line sets the tone for the entire novel; Ellen, though now living in the comfort of her foster mother’s home, has had to grow up too fast. She is far wiser than most ten-year-old girls, and this maturity comes as a result of all that she has seen in her life thus far.

The opening line also serves to take the reader back to the past, to illustrate the events that have led Ellen to the place where she is today. Looking back two years, she shows readers the terrible existence she and her mother led, mainly resulting from Ellen’s father’s alcoholism. Ellen then weaves past and present together in the rest of the novel, subtly contrasting that old life with the life she now leads in the secure home of her foster mother, the home where she decided to take “Foster” as her surname.

As Ellen recounts the events of her life, the picture of a true survivor emerges. She watched her mother, who suffered from a heart condition, endure the mental abuse inflicted upon her by her husband, Ellen’s father, with the worst of it coming as both he and Ellen see Ellen’s mother overdose on her heart medication. Though Ellen desperately wants to seek help for her mother, her father threatens to kill both of them if she does so. All Ellen can do is lie with her mother in bed as she takes her last breaths. This act leaves Ellen alone with her father for a while, yet she learns to survive on her own.

Later, Ellen leaves her father’s house after a particularly harrowing night and bounces around from relative to relative. Eventually, she takes it upon herself, on Christmas Day, to place herself in the home of a woman she had seen in church, someone her cousin had referred to as “the foster family.” Many of these events mirrored what went on in Gibbons’s life as she, too, lost her mother to suicide, lived for a short time with her abusive, alcoholic father, and then went in and out of temporary homes until a suitable home with a foster mother (her older sibling) was found.

Despite Ellen’s turbulent life, there were two constants: her optimism and her friend Starletta. Through all of the hardship, Ellen was always able to take care of herself, and she had faith in her ability to be self-reliant. Additionally, Starletta and her family always provided some refuge and stability. However, for most of the novel, Ellen is unable to embrace the beauty of Starletta completely because Starletta is African American, and Ellen is the product of a culture that has always insisted that no matter the economic status, Ellen is “better” than Starletta. Finally, at the end of the novel, when Ellen is given unconditional love by her “new mama,” a woman who has no problem with letting an African American child spend the night in her house, Ellen can love and appreciate her dear friend fully. She opens her heart and her mind and admits that she has been mistaken all along—there is no shame is deeming Starletta her best friend.

A Cure for Dreams

First published: 1991

Type of work: Novel

Betty Davies Randolph recounts the story of her and her mother’s lives in a rural North Carolina community during the years of the Great Depression.

A Cure for Dreams, Gibbons’s third novel, was written with the help of a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. In preparing for writing this novel, Gibbons read transcripts from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Great Depression and found much inspiration in the voices of the common, average men and women. Voice, then, becomes the centerpiece of A Cure for Dreams, with three extraordinary women characters sharing their stories.

The primary narrator is Betty Davies Randolph, but the reader gets to her voice only through the frame of her daughter, Marjorie Polly Randolph. Marjorie opens the novel, and she ends it. Marjorie provides the perfect segue for Betty’s narrative as she says, “Talking was my mother’s life.” Then, the majority of the novel is told through Betty, with an occasional intrusion by Lottie O’Cadhain Davies, Betty’s mother.

The southern art of storytelling, as well as reverence for the past, is alive in this novel, for Betty immediately acquaints the audience with the details of her mother’s heritage and the stories surrounding her mother and father’s courtship and marriage. For the most part, what seemingly emerges is the portrait of a typical southern woman who will acquiesce to her husband’s wishes as Lottie follows her husband from Kentucky to North Carolina, but the picture quickly changes. When Lottie realizes that Charles merely wants a companion in the fields, she asserts her own will and draws more inward; the arrival of Betty then allows her to form a new bond which leaves her husband out. From this point on, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and among women in general, become the focal point of the novel.

As the story progresses, Lottie grows more distant from her husband and closer to her daughter and eventually to other women in the small community of Milk Farm Road. Lottie and Betty are practically inseparable, and their adventures include instigating card games in a local store, holding political discussions with other women, and helping other women in need. At Lottie’s side, Betty learns how important it is to have such a network of women to depend upon, yet she also learns to be somewhat self-reliant. For the most part in Gibbons’s work, men seem rather incapable of understanding women or contributing to their growth. For instance, Betty’s father never has an active relationship in the Davies household, and his suicide seemingly frees the women to engage in life more fully. Also, when Betty attempts to live in New York for a short time, the man she dates introduces her to drugs, and only when she returns home to her nurturing community is she able to find happiness.

Betty does eventually marry, but her husband immediately goes off to war, so she is left again to find support and comfort (and await the birth of her first child) with women, her mother, and Polly Deal, the local midwife. All throughout this novel, the steady voice of Betty remains constant. She is an ordinary woman, yet she recounts the details of a rather extraordinary life.

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