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...
(The entire section is 2087 words.)