Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2087
Kaye Gibbons’s novels are celebrated primarily for the original and authentic voices of her female protagonists and for the strength and endurance of all her women characters. More broadly, as a southerner herself who sets her stories in the South she knows, she works in the strong American tradition of...
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- Critical Essays
Kaye Gibbons’s novels are celebrated primarily for the original and authentic voices of her female protagonists and for the strength and endurance of all her women characters. More broadly, as a southerner herself who sets her stories in the South she knows, she works in the strong American tradition of regionalism. In fact, in 2000 she wrote the introduction to an edition of The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories (1899) by Kate Chopin, a pioneering regionalist who set her fiction in New Orleans and its environs, a world she had come to call home. Gibbons’s own works evoke a powerful sense of place, a grasp of the paradox of society’s rigidity and transience, women characters who find themselves restricted by present circumstances and often manage to endure or overcome these in courageous ways, a mastery of the colloquial voice, a gift for rendering conversation, and a southerner’s understanding of the profound importance of both history and, in particular, story.
Gibbons must be placed within the continuing tradition of great southern writers extending most famously from William Faulkner through a group of acclaimed women writers including Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, Lee Smith, and Jill McCorkle, to name a few. As with Faulkner and so many of the women writers who are her predecessors and contemporaries, Gibbons’s work is full of humor; unlike Faulkner in his tragic sense of southern history, her work is optimistic, that is, ultimately comic in the truest sense of the word. In addition, as a postmodern southern writer, her work is assertively feminist, and in its evocations of place and character, she demonstrates the oppression upon which the myth of a white, patriarchal South rested. She replaces that world with one in which those who suffered or would have suffered in the past can claim some measure of autonomy and power.
Gibbons’s work almost exclusively features first-person narrators, almost all female, in varying stages of life, from eleven-year-old Ellen Foster to the elderly widow Emma Garnet of A Virtuous Woman. As these characters tell their own stories, they often shift back and forth in time, weaving memory into their recounting of the present. Given the richness of her character development, sometimes over significant expanses of time, and given the complexity of her narrative technique, Gibbons writes with surprising economy.
A critically celebrated writer, if Gibbons can be faulted it is for her male characters, who are often stereotypes, lack depth and development, and too evil, and in one case, too good to be believed.
Gibbons’s first novel, published when she was only twenty-six years old, is still her most popular. It also is her most autobiographical. Sometimes classified as young adult fiction, Ellen Foster is widely taught and often compared to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) as an important American coming-of-age tale.
Eleven-year-old Ellen Foster narrates her own story, that of a traumatic year in her life in which she faces the critical illness of and death by suicide of her mother, the neglect and abuse of her alcoholic father, the painful experience of being shifted from one unwelcoming family member to another, the happier experiences of her brief time with her friend Starletta’s family, of living with her art teacher and her husband, and of her seeking out and finally finding the foster mother after whom she names herself—the joyful, secure place from which she tells the story of her recent past.
Her first-person voice is highly individual. Gibbons achieves this in part through a preponderance of brief simple and compound sentences, sparse punctuation, and a plain but specific and concrete vocabulary. Ellen’s idiom is southern when it is not so unique as to be beyond classification. She is an exceptionally bright child, too.
As this is a maturation tale, the reader is privy to Ellen’s blind spots and thus keenly aware of her growth by the end of the novel. Certainly, she learns painful lessons about social class. Her mother has married beneath her class to grave consequences. When Ellen is abused by her grandmother, the abuse is justified because the old woman seeks to eliminate any semblance of her father in her by working her like a field hand. Eventually, however, though Ellen recognizes injustice in such stratifications, she is happy to have found her way safely into the middle class. Her beloved Starletta and her family are sources of an even more significant lesson: Ellen gradually sheds her racism as she endures hardships of her own. In fact, the last line of the novel is dedicated to this transformation.
Ultimately, Ellen’s achievement is her initiative, cleverness, and courage in saving herself, perhaps even inventing herself, in the presence of the female models she knows best, in the self-destruction of her mother, in the callousness of her aunts, and in the bitter death-in-life of her grandmother. This is a woman’s story, but one that defies all the old paradigms. Ellen is helped along the way, but her rescue is her own.
Charms for the Easy Life
After experimenting with multiple first-person narrators in the two novels that followed Ellen Foster, Gibbons returned to the single narrator in Charms for the Easy Life. Gibbons’s interest in individual voices and history convene here as she studies Works Progress Administration interviews collected during the Great Depression. In the book’s preface, she cites Studs Terkel as a source of inspiration, especially his The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (1984). Unlike Ellen Foster, though, Margaret is more educated and confident, but shy. Her sophisticated voice is reflected in correct grammar, longer and more complex sentences, and fewer of the comic colloquialisms that enliven that younger narrator’s voice.
Charms for the Easy Life is the story of three women, Charlie Kate—the grandmother; SophiA&Mdash;her daughter; and the narrator, Margaret, Sophia’s daughter. Set mostly between the mid-1930’s in the thick of the Great Depression and the early 1940’s and World War II, this novel is much more specific than earlier works in the details of its setting. The historical milieu, the story’s context, is richly evoked. While the novel is still set in the South, readers see life in the cities, from impoverished Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, to the affluent reaches of Raleigh, North Carolina. Margaret also supplies much detail about the folklores of an earlier, more rural South, especially as they relate to healing.
As in Gibbons’s earlier novels, marriage, especially disastrous marriage, features large here, though this novel has been criticized for its fairy tale ending. Both Sophia and Margaret make happy love matches with worthy men as the story closes, but there are still many challenges along the way. More important, however, is the theme of self-determination for women. Charlie Kate begins as a rural midwife, but through experience and reading becomes a figure easily mistaken for a doctor, recognized for her compassion and expertise. Despite a brief return to the husband who abandoned her, she lives most of her life happily single, devoted to Margaret and her future, increasingly skilled and respected for her work. Also important is Charlie Kate’s ability to end the career of a male doctor who has managed to accrue wealth and property despite his carelessness and incompetence. Sophia, Charlie Kate’s daughter, is the most conventional woman of the three. She is an avid reader, but lonely without a husband. She finds love with a worthy man at last and needs nothing else. Margaret is set by the end of the novel, ready to begin her education to become the doctor her grandmother never became and set to marry a supportive and loving husband.
As in the earlier novels, both race and class are significant issues in Charms for the Easy Life. The three women travel up from the intolerance and ignorance of the working-class South (though never abandoning what is best there, especially its folkways) into the light of the tolerance and educated enlightenment of the upper middle class. The South of the Depression is still plagued by racism, though these women prove themselves to be color blind, cutting down and reviving a lynched man and ministering to the needs of African American women in Memphis and other places. The “charm” for the “easy life” is a gift to Charlie Kate from the man she and her husband cut down from the tree. As the charm and the title suggest, life is never strictly easy for these women, but they each end up with a life that must seem charmed to all who know them.
On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon
Narrated by Emma Garnet Tate Lowell at the end of her life at the beginning of the twentieth century, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon is a historical novel, set around the time of the American Civil War, primarily in Virginia and North Carolina. Again, Gibbons uses a first-person narrator who recounts the story of her and her family’s life through memory.
Emma and her servant, Clarice, are strong women characters (and Emma’s sister, Maurine, becomes strong through the novel), and Gibbons once again presents a father figure who, abused himself, is domineering and cruel; he also is a great lover of books and learning, and completely identifies with the Old South. Two other male figures are rendered here more completely than usual for Gibbons—Emma’s brother, Whatley, and her husband, Quincy. The men range along a spectrum of characteristics. Whatley is educated like his father and is kind but ineffectual. Quincy is loving, supportive, educated, and strong, making him almost too good to be true. However, Quincy, as an enlightened northerner, plays a significant role because he validates Emma’s own defiance of her father’s South.
The Civil War setting allows Gibbons to deal with the theme of race at more length than in any of her other books. Emma is an abolitionist in her sympathies, in part because she witnesses her father’s brutal killing of a slave on the plantation. Clarice, a free black, is a sustaining figure in a household with a kind but weak mother, yet her experiences in both Virginia and North Carolina suggest the inferior status of African Americans in the Civil War South. Once Emma moves to the city of Raleigh and the war progresses, Gibbons’s story focuses mainly on the suffering of the slaves of that city and those of Emma’s own household.
The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster
The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, a sequel to Ellen Foster, is narrated by a now-fifteen-year-old Ellen. It begins with her unconventional letter to Harvard University as she tries to gain early admission. The style of the novel reflects Ellen’s growing maturity and intellect. She no longer expresses herself in the simple and compound sentences of the earlier novel, evident in how the page appears—no longer abounding in white space. She now narrates her story in complex sentences using a plethora of introductory elements, almost self-consciously as if to reflect all she has read and studied. The effect of this complexity and a much more sophisticated vocabulary, mixed with her still characteristic colloquialisms, makes for rich comedy in the novel’s style.
Ellen herself lives out two significant themes evident in Gibbons’s fiction: courtship and an offer of marriage, and the prospect of marrying “down,” that is, below her class and sophistication. In this novel, she is courted by her friend Stuart, the kind but relatively ignorant son of a man who makes a living burning castoff tires. She manages to extricate herself from this situation in her continuing journey toward self-determination. She goes to a camp for the gifted at Johns Hopkins University, and the novel ends with a response from the president of Harvard suggesting that when she is ready, she will be admitted there.
Ellen’s longtime friend Starletta, and Starletta’s mother, have now become such integrated and enduring parts of Ellen’s life, and the life of Laura, her foster mother, that the novel suggests some progress is made in race relations in the South. Starletta, though, is still a somewhat silent companion, more a ball of fierce energy spinning in and out of Ellen’s life.