Kaye Gibbons

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Veronica Makowsky (essay date Winter 1992)

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SOURCE: “‘The Only Hard Part Was the Food’: Recipes for Self-Nurture in Kaye Gibbons's Novels,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 30, Nos. 2-3, Winter, 1992, pp. 103-12.

[In the following essay, Makowsky discusses the relationship between food and nurturing in Gibbons's Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman.]

In an article on Katherine Anne Porter's Miranda stories, Kaye Gibbons observes that “Porter's language, for all its superficial simplicity, pulls the reader vertically towards submerged meanings and horizontally backward through time and memories” (“Planes of Language” 74). The same could be said of Gibbons's own novels. The narrators of Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman are relatively uneducated, but their apparently unsophisticated commentary is actually a palimpsest of meanings, drawing the reader through past, present and future. Food, Gibbons's major metaphor for these levels of significance, is as basic and instinctive as the voices of her narrators. In their preoccupation with meals, Gibbons's narrators are all seeking the perfect recipe for happiness: how to provide nurturance for others, how to receive it for themselves and, most importantly, how to nurture themselves.

Gibbons is well-versed in the southern female bildungsroman and, in addition to Porter's Miranda, has commented appreciatively on Eudora Welty's Laura McRaven in Delta Wedding and the various girls of Welty's “Moon Lake” (“Planes of Language” 76, 77). Of Miranda, Gibbons remarks, “Viewed superficially, her struggles are neither extraordinary nor metaphoric” (76). In her first novel, Ellen Foster, Gibbons provides us with a heroine whose “struggles” are indeed “extraordinary” and “metaphoric” as signaled by a line from the epigraph for the novel, taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson's epigraph to “Self-Reliance”: “Suckle him with the she-wolf's teat.” Ellen Foster is Gibbons's attempt to rewrite the saga of the American hero by changing “him” to “her” and to rewrite the southern female bildungsroman by changing its privileged, sheltered, upper-class heroine to a poor, abused outcast. Like Porter and Welty's protagonists, Ellen faces the psychological and spiritual problems of growing up, but she must also confront sexual abuse, homelessness and, above all, hunger. The “she-wolf's teat” would seem like ambrosia to Ellen.

The novel opens with ten-year-old Ellen trying to shield her sick mother from her father's abuse. Ellen's mother has just returned from the hospital for treatment of the chronic heart condition she acquired in her youth from rheumatic fever, which Ellen calls “romantic fever” (3). Ellen's malapropism is actually quite accurate since her mother married beneath her class in what she must have believed to be a romantic escape from her own overbearing mother. Her mistake is glaringly obvious as Ellen's boorish father insists that her invalid mother make dinner, though she is plainly incapable of feeding anyone. Ellen comments that her mother “would prop herself up by the refrigerator” (2) and “looks like she could crawl under the table” (5). Because these props of domesticity—the refrigerator and kitchen table—are inadequate, Ellen herself must act as substitute homemaker. Her thoughts turn more to contamination, however, than to nurture: “What can I do but go and reach the tall things for her? I set that dinner table and like to take a notion to spit on his fork” (4).

With Ellen's help, her mother gets dinner on the table and fulfills her physical role as nurturer, but she never learns to nurture herself. All she wants to ingest is an overdose of her medication in order to escape her unbearable marriage. Again, Ellen takes on the parental role as she implores: “Vomit them up, mama. I'll stick my finger down your throat and you can vomit them up. She looks at me and...

(This entire section contains 5266 words.)

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I see she will not vomit. She will not move” (9). Ellen's mother is so debilitated physically and mentally that she poisons herself and can look at, but not nurture, her only child. Her father refuses to allow Ellen to call for help and later, as Ellen rests in bed beside her dying mother, she asserts, “And I will crawl in and make room for myself. My heart can be the one that beats” (10). Ellen is expressing contradictory desires: to return to the womb's safety where she was fed and to take over the life-sustaining role of the mother's heartbeat and nourishing bloodstream.

Although Ellen's mother is totally unable to nurture her child at the beginning of the novel, in her earlier seasons of relatively good health she taught Ellen the lessons about life to which Ellen clings after her death. Ellen's favorite memory is of gardening with her mother.

She nursed all the plants and put even the weeds she pulled up in little piles along the rows. My job was to pick the piles up and dispose of them. I was small my own self and did not have the sense to tell between weeds and plants.

I just worked in the trail my mama left.

When the beans were grown ready to eat she would let me help pick. Weeds do not bear fruit. She would give me a example of a bean that is grown good to hold in one hand while I picked with the other. If I was not sure if a particular bean was at the right stage I could hold up my example of a bean to that bean in question and know.


Once again, through the production of food, Gibbons suggests that from her mother Ellen learned not only right from wrong, beans from weeds, but also what an exemplary adult is, a model who has grown “to the right stage.” After her mother's death, Ellen desperately needs these lessons as she confronts a series of caretakers who cannot or will not feed her, physically or mentally.

Ellen's father has plainly not grown to the “right stage”—he still expects others to nurture him. When her mother was in the hospital, Ellen had to supply her place as nurturer: “If I did not feed us both we had to go into town and get take-out chicken” (3). After her mother's death, he expects ten-year-old Ellen to replace her mother sexually as well. The perverse immaturity of his sexuality is evident in his focus on Ellen's body as baby food, milk and candy. “You got girl ninnies he might say. … Somebody else calling out sugar blossom britches might sound sweet but it was nasty from him” (43, 44). Although we might like to believe Ellen's father is a rare monster, Gibbons evidently intends him to represent a socially pervasive view of women as objects for consumption. His black drinking buddies advise him, again in eating imagery, on the night that he rapes her: “Yours is just about ripe. You gots to git em when they is still soff when you mashum” (37).

While her father is attempting to consume her, Ellen is trying to feed herself.

The only hard part was the food. The whole time I stayed with him he either ate at the Dinette in town or did without. I would not go to the restaurant with him because I did not want to be seen with him. That is all.

I fed myself OK. I tried to make what we had at school but I found the best deal was the plate froze with food already on it. A meat, two vegetables, and a dab of dessert.


Ellen is not just putting food in her stomach; she is attempting to maintain her standards. She will not eat with her father, especially in public, but she still manages to fulfill the nutritional requirements she learned in school. Although she may be keeping her dignity before the outside world, eating the proper food groups, and physically starving, the “froze food” indicates spiritually cold comfort.

Not all the standards she retains from her past help nurture her. Ellen's refuge is the house of her black friend Starletta which “always smells like fried meat” and where Starletta's “mama is at the stove boiling and frying” (29). Starletta's parents welcome Ellen, assure her of a haven against her father's abuse and even take her shopping for clothes, but Ellen cannot accept them as a substitute family because, as she says, “I would not even eat in a colored house” (33). The tenacity with which Ellen clings to her standards betrays her in this instance because she cannot differentiate between the content of nourishing love and the packaging of color: “No matter how good it looks to you it is still a colored biscuit” (32).

By court order Ellen is sent to live with her maternal grandmother who, unfortunately, is not a sweet, white-haired old lady ready to feed the poor child milk and cookies, as Ellen quickly perceives: “My mama's mama picked me up in her long car that was like the undertaking car only hers was cream” (61). Ellen's recognition of her grandmother's poisonous propensities is evident in her association of her grandmother's car with a hearse and food (“cream”), as well as her refusal to use the word “grandmother.” Ellen's intuitions are accurate since her grandmother is taking Ellen not to nurture her, but to punish her for her mother's death, persisting in the belief that a ten-year-old child could and would connive with her father to poison her mother. Ellen's grandmother will not acknowledge that her mistreatment of her daughter helped precipitate her fatal marriage but projects the blame on Ellen and makes the small girl work in the fields in the intense heat of summer.

Ellen's grandmother provides her with sufficient food “just because she did not have it in her to starve a girl” (75) but does not mind starving her for affection. “We ate right many miniature chickens or turkeys. I do not know the difference. But they were baked and not crunchy the way I most enjoy chicken. When we both ate at the same Sunday table we both picked at our little individual chickens and turkeys and did not talk. And still it was OK by me” (66).

Her grandmother upholds class distinctions at the expense of pleasure and communion as they eat baked chicken, instead of the satisfyingly vulgar fried, and “individual chickens and turkeys” instead of food from a common serving dish. Ellen's insistence that she was glad they did not talk shows how much she has lost hope in her grandmother as nurturer. She had early decided that “she might be a witch but she has the dough”; later, “I called her the damn witch to myself and all the money she had did not matter anymore. That is something when you consider how greedy I am” (61). Ellen has learned that there is more to a meal than food on the table and that society's substitution of money for “dough” produces an inedible mess.

Once again Ellen is placed in a situation in which she must nurture an adult, first mentally and then physically. Her grandmother feeds her hate on the sight of Ellen. “Her power was the sucking kind that takes your good sense and leaves you limp like a old zombie. … She would take all the feeling she needed from somebody and then stir it up with some money and turn the recipe back on you” (68). Ellen is force-fed her grandmother's hate, but is unable to regurgitate it because she cannot separate the hatred from her identity. “It is like when you are sick and you know all the things you ever ate or just wanted to eat are churning in you now and you will be sick to relieve yourself but the relief is a dream you let yourself believe because you know the churning is all there is to you” (72).

Although she recognizes her grandmother's hatred, Ellen takes care of her in her final illness and follows the doctor's advice to “feed her particular foods” (72). Ellen does not feed her grandmother out of love but because her grandmother has perversely fed Ellen's feelings of irrational guilt over her mother's death, consuming Ellen's “good sense” in knowing that a ten-year-old child could not prevail against her father.

Despite Ellen's care, her grandmother dies, and she is reluctantly taken in by her mother's widowed sister Nadine, who has a daughter about Ellen's age. As Ellen expects, Nadine is solely concerned with nurturing Dora and regards Ellen as an intruder on their relationship, much as her late husband must have been. Ellen comments, “I stayed in the spare bedroom Nadine's old husband lived in. He did not die flat out but he had a stroke of something and wasted away in here” (95). Ellen foresees a similar starvation for herself but tries to avert it. “I thought about taking my meals in my room but I did not like the picture of me eating off a tray slid to me like I was on death row. So I would eat at the table like normal” (95). “Like normal” appears to be a false simulacrum because Nadine rids herself of the indigestible intruder by throwing Ellen out of the house on Christmas day.

Having learned that blood ties do not necessarily nurture, Ellen tries a nontraditional family. She throws herself on the mercy of a woman who takes foster children. Naively, she believes that “foster” is the family's name and renames herself accordingly, but once again her linguistic error points to truth since “to foster” means to further growth, or, in other words, to nurture. The reader knows Ellen's hunch about this woman is correct when Ellen smells fried chicken as she enters the house, picking up a three-day-old scent that she, in her desperation, apprehends.

Ellen repeatedly refers to her new home in terms of gratified hunger. “There is a plenty to eat here and if we run out of something we just go to the store and get some more” (2). Cooking becomes associated with the rituals of community and love as the children and their foster mother cook their week's lunches on Sunday and receive individual cooking lessons during the week. The kitchen is no longer a place of conflict or empty routines, but is filled with affection. Ellen says of her foster mother that “she is there each day in the kitchen and that is something when you consider she does not have to be there but she is there so I can squeeze her and be glad” (86).

Although Ellen is certainly much happier, her continuing obsession with food shows how deeply traumatized she is from years without nourishing affection.

If I am very hungry my dress comes off of me in a heartbeat. Sometimes I hurry too fast and I forget to unzip my back. It is helpless to smell lunch through a dress that is hung on your face. I have busted a zipper and ripped two neck collars trying to strip and my new mama told me some things about patience.

I stay starved though.


This comment comes approximately midway through the novel, which is narrated in a series of contrasting flashbacks to Ellen's life at her foster home. As the novel continues, Ellen's references to food decline dramatically, as if she begins to feel secure about food and affection.

By the end of the novel Ellen has learned the folly of social distinctions according to class and race, in addition to those she had learned about “blood” kin. She can assert that if Starletta “tells me to I will lick the glass she uses just to show that I love her and being colored is just the way she is” (85). When her foster mother allows her to invite Starletta to spend the weekend and to request her favorite dishes, Ellen remarks that Starletta “could see how I enjoy staying laid up in my bed waiting for supper to cook. And you can guess what all is on the menu” (123). Since Ellen is now nurtured by an adult, she can share that nurturing with someone younger and less privileged than herself, as evidenced in the last lines of the novel. “And all this time I thought I had the hardest row to hoe. That will always amaze me.” The imagery recalls Ellen's favorite memory of growing beans with her mother and indicates that she sees woman's lot as hard, “work[ing] in the trail [her] mama left” (49), but she can lend a hand to the next woman down the trail, so that all will be fed.

Ellen has certainly mastered Emerson's lesson of self-reliance, but that is not an end in itself, and although her gutsy, vernacular voice recalls Huck Finn, she does not light out for the territories in an attempt to maintain that autonomy. She is also a more successful heroine than Porter's Miranda, of whom Gibbons writes, “She does not yet know that she cannot reorder the past nor order her future by an act of will. She needs something closer to an act of faith” (“Planes of Language” 75). Through Ellen, Gibbons redefines self-reliance, not as a willed and threatened isolation, but as the maturity that enables an act of faith in others and, in turn, that allows a girl to contribute to, as well as receive from, the female tradition of community and nurturance.

In her second novel, Gibbons goes back in time to a protagonist of the same generation as Ellen Foster's mother, as if to ask why such virtuous women seem fated to suffer in the past. Although the food imagery is not overwhelming in A Virtuous Woman, as it is in Ellen Foster, it remains a major element, as indicated by lines from the epigraph.

She bringeth her food from afar
She riseth also while it is yet night,
And giveth meat to her household.

(Proverbs 31: 19–21)

Significantly, the virtuous woman of Proverbs is portrayed as feeding others, not receiving nurture from others, or, most importantly, nourishing herself.

Ruby Woodrow Stokes, like Ellen Foster's mother, has married beneath her class, but unlike Ellen's mother, who marries to escape a hostile, emotionally starved mother, Ruby seems to be fleeing a surfeit of nurturing. Of her father and brothers, she recalls: “If I had a tough piece of meat on my plate, the minute one of them saw me struggling they'd lean over, take my knife and fork from me and cut the meat up for me. I never rebelled against it, snatched my knife back and said, ‘I'll cut my own meat up, thank you’” (25–26).

Predictably, Ruby's mother is a woman so sheltered from reality that she cannot cope with it. When Ruby's father hires migrant workers, her mother decides to invite them inside for a meal served on her best china. She cannot comprehend the dirt and destruction left behind by the untaught and hostile workers and deals with the situation by ignoring it, retreating to her room and refusing to talk about it.

Ruby repeats her mother's experience with migrant workers by marrying one, John Woodrow, and finds him not only unappreciative but unfaithful and abusive. He even criticizes her higher-caste slenderness, ordering her to “put some meat on them bones!” (68). Their marriage cannot feed her, but rather chokes her: Ruby calls herself “a good country girl who'd married this man and bitten off way, way more than she could chew” (34). Since her family's food was prepared by a servant, Ruby does not know how to cook. She realizes that she is incapable of nurturing herself physically or spiritually and knows that John Woodrow will not do it for her. She sarcastically remarks, “I'd have come nearer thriving on John Woodrow's love than the food we had” (35). Instead of learning to feed herself, she learns to poison herself from John Woodrow's example. In response to his taunts about what a “little Miss Vanderbilt” (37) she is, Ruby begins the smoking that will lead to her death from cancer years later.

Ruby, though, is not a total masochist who will continue to swallow more than she can chew. She decides to regurgitate it by planning to kill John Woodrow when he makes her “sick to [her] stomach” (46), lying in bed with another woman. She is spared the trouble of murdering him herself when she learns he is hospitalized after a knife fight. Instead of rushing to the hospital to resume her role as victim, Ruby stays away, despite the admonitory example of one of the migrant women. “She said the man's face was sliced this way and that and his wife stayed right by him, feeding him through a straw, picking glass slivers from his lips. The woman told the story like it was a privilege for the man's wife to pick at his lips” (69). Ruby refuses her gender role as the nurturer of her abuser, someone who would cut herself by removing glass from his lips, but she does not have to put her conviction to the test since John Woodrow dies of his injuries.

Ruby also learns to rebel against the class and race systems, as Gibbons indicates in a scene about serving food. Ruby is working as a house servant to the Hoovers, the family that hired John Woodrow and the other migrants for the field. They gloat over having so refined a servant, someone who seems from a higher social class than themselves. Ruby can now identify with her family's black servant, Whistle Dick, who was fired by the cook for eating food intended for guests: “the more I thought of Whistle Dick, the more I wanted to. Then I'd have been out, just like he was when Sudie Bee caught him sneaking the pineapple slices off a ham” (49). When Frances Hoover tries to show Ruby how to arrange sandwiches on a platter, a genteel female art which Ruby knows well, Ruby fantasizes: “Whew! I just thought of Frances tasting one of those little ladyfingers her sister brought and commenting on how she put in way, way too much salt. Then I say maybe she ought to have something to wash it down, how it's the rat poison I sprinkled on top that brings out the salty flavor” (79). By the time of John Woodrow's death, Ruby can recognize the poisonous nature of southern gender, race and class systems.

Recognition cannot save Ruby, for in the pre-feminist South she believes herself to be anomalous and alone. Although she sees the degraded condition of the Hoover women, she cannot bond with them, nor would they allow her to since the male-dominated culture sets woman against woman in competition for masculine approval. Frances must prove with a platter of sandwiches that she is a better hostess than Ruby. Her obese daughter, cruelly nicknamed Tiny Fran, turns on both Frances and Ruby, who comments: “My God! That girl just hit her mama! Then she went to the refrigerator and poured herself a big glass of chocolate milk, saw me standing there by the pantry and said to me, ‘Hand me a box of soda crackers in there’” (39). Tiny Fran is pregnant out of wedlock and her father has basically paid one of his workers, Burr, to marry her by giving him land. Suffering with morning sickness and with disgust at this patriarchal barter, Tiny Fran can only hurt herself, not the system. Ruby observes that she is “settling her stomach with soda crackers and undoing all the good that was doing with a quart of chocolate milk, then sick and frustrated and not understanding why” (40).

“Not understanding why,” Tiny Fran perpetuates the cycle of domination by indulging her son Roland with all the chocolate milk he can drink so that he would “grow up and give her more attention than her daddy did and Burr did” (106). Unsurprisingly, he grows up to be incarcerated for his brutal beating of a young woman. Tiny Fran also continues the tradition of woman against woman by failing to nurture her daughter June. Tiny Fran and Roland would “sit down and split a chocolate cake but she wouldn't have given June air if she was in a jug” (90).

Ruby realizes she cannot go back to her parents since her experiences have deprived her of the sheltered innocence that they would value and continue to nourish. All those years of having her meat cut up for her, however, had made her incapable of moving forward alone and nourishing herself. She literally marries the next man who comes along, the Hoovers' tenant farmer Jack Stokes, and allows herself to be consumed like a nut fallen into his hands from the pecan tree under which Jack sees her “sitting … like a prize” (18).

Unlike John Woodrow, though, Jack has the grace to recognize that he is feeding off Ruby. “And then I see me, the biggest buzzard of them all, circling too, circling Ruby, waiting” (16). Throughout their marriage, he continues to associate Ruby with food. After her death he likes to remember her on a trip to the beach “riding the whole way with a pineapple cake between her feet and holding a pound cake” (93). He fears that her cancer will spoil her for his consumption and for her role as a status object for him: “Ruby has the creamiest soft skin and I hated to have brown spots ruin her for people” (2). To Jack, her disease is the buzzard who got there first: “Ruby's cancer ate up most of everything we had saved” (58–59).

As John Woodrow had wanted Ruby to play one culturally assigned role, that of sex object, so Jack Stokes wanted her to play another, that of the nurturing mother who would compensate for his own mother's refusal to act the way her gender seemed to dictate. Jack recalls:

I'd always have to think of my mama whenever Ruby made a pie, which was every Sunday morning until she got so weak she couldn't hardly crawl out of the bed. … Mama would've been put off by Ruby's pies, too much, too good. … sometimes I want to ask mama why she couldn't ever have made I and daddy just one pie, just a plain one. But I guess a hard woman like my mama didn't think about dessert. … I excuse the pies I didn't have because I was satisfied by Ruby's so many times.


Jack's mother did provide food for the family: “she used not to flinch when she'd scald a chicken, dip it in the cast-iron pot outside and it steaming, and pluck it faster than you could yell” (15). Jack, however, cannot accept the nurture without subserviently feminine sweetening, “dessert.” His mother appears to have been killed by the indigestibility of her gender roles and her husband and son's blindness to them. Jack remembers: “She passed when I was fourteen, food poison. Turned out to be a bad piece of meat, but we thought first it was just the stomach flu” (14).

Ruby, unprepared for self-reliance, is willing to depend on Jack for her survival since she can earn her keep and her dignity by playing nurturing mother to him. She knows “he's just like a child” (7) and decides to master the skills she needs to tend him, primarily culinary ones. She muses:

Cooking's not like cleaning. You don't just know what good is and then cook it. You need a touch that comes with time and patience, especially if you grew up playing the piano while meals were being prepared and then coming into the kitchen just in time to put parsley on the plates. But you ought to see the way I've kept this house and cooked for Jack. I'm sorry to say that I might not have much in my life to be proud of, but I'm surely pleased with myself every time I see bread rise, and it rises every time.


She is so proud of her one accomplishment that she even wants to provide for Jack after her death. The woman who makes a pie every Sunday as long as she can stand up spends the last months of her life cooking for her husband. In the novel's opening passage, she announces: “By Thanksgiving I'll have everything organized. I tie a package of pork with some corn, beef with some beans, and so forth, so all Jack should have to do is reach into the freezer and take out a good, easy meal” (5). She continues her cooking despite her recognition of its ultimate futility: “somehow, when I see him a year, two years from now, he's letting himself in Burr's house, hungry, lonesome” (6). As Ellen Foster also learned, frozen food is a cold, rapidly consumed comfort.

Although their marriage might be considered a decent one, in that both partners lived up to their parts of the bargain without conflict or violence, neither Ruby nor Jack was really nourished enough for growth. Ruby cannot ask for Jack's reassurance and sympathy as she fights her cancer because she knows the topic distresses him and sends him to drink. She must confront her final feelings alone. Jack remains a child who lives on the level of appetites. Jack's questions after Ruby's death are not what we usually consider existential ones: “I had three big questions every day I needed a answer to, What's for breakfast? What's for lunch? What's for supper?” (123). He continues his search for a mother-substitute: “Isn't it every man's dream that when his wife dies he has somebody to step in and do for him?” (134). In the last scene of the novel, he is rescued by a woman, Burr's daughter June, who finds him in bed sucking on a bottle, the alcoholic kind.

A Virtuous Woman ends ambiguously. June has been “fostered” by Ruby since she could get no attention from Tiny Fran, and she may be replacing Ruby as a mother-figure in the final scene of the novel.

June told her father that when she finished cleaning Jack's house she'd like to go back into town and buy some things for supper and they could all eat together. Something Jack would like, the way Ruby would've made it. She showed me how to make the dough, and we sat at the table, rolled it out and cut it into long strips. Then she held me over the pot and let me drop them in.


June could be regarded as continuing the tradition of female subservience that she learned from Ruby, yet the care, the craft, the nurturing in June's memory of Ruby have the same positive connotations as Ellen Foster's memory of picking beans with her mother.

In A Virtuous Woman, Gibbons redefines the virtuous woman, but not by discarding female crafts and traditions, particularly cooking, with their connotations of nurturance. She is not suggesting that the nurturing of others indicates servility. Instead, she suggests that the truly virtuous woman can nurture herself as well as others, not sacrifice herself for the good of others since that “good” turns out to be the evil of John Woodrow or Ellen Foster's father's abuse or Jack Stokes's childishness. June embodies both old and new values. She has not only learned to cook, but, with Ruby's encouragement, has become an architect in a nearby town. Although she has lost Ruby, she still has female support and another kind of female example. We learn that June has a friend named Ellen who is one of the orphans Ruth Hartley is raising. When Ellen's foster sister Stella is beaten up by Tiny Fran's son Roland, Ellen reports him to the police and rides with Stella and Ruth in the ambulance (104–05). Ellen and June may be the new virtuous women who know that in order to nourish others they must first nurture themselves or all will ultimately go hungry.

Works Cited

Gibbons, Kaye. Ellen Foster. 1987. New York: Random, 1988.

———. “Planes of Language and Time: The Surface of the Miranda Stories.” Kenyon Review 10.1 (1988): 74–79.

———. A Virtuous Woman. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 1989.


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Kaye Gibbons 1960-

American novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Gibbons's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 50 and 88.

Gibbons is best known for novels that focus on self-reliant southern women and the challenges they face in their lives. Typically set in her native rural North Carolina, Gibbons's stories are told in the dialects of first-person narrators. Her characters are often guided by shared virtues, such as an innate common sense or a refusal to suffer from self-pity. Common themes in her work include the vicissitudes of love and marriage, sickness, death, racism, poverty, and the horrors of child abuse.

Biographical Information

Gibbons was born to Charles and Alice Butts in Wilson, North Carolina, on May 5, 1960. Her father was a tobacco farmer, and the family lived on a farm in rural Nash County. Gibbons was very close to her mother, who committed suicide at the age of forty-seven. Gibbons later wrote about this painful childhood event in her semi-autobiographical work Ellen Foster (1987). She lived with her father before moving to live with her aunt. This was a brief arrangement, however, and after her father's death in 1972, Gibbons stayed with a foster family until she was able to live with her brother in 1973. She lived there until fall 1978 when she started attending North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In 1980, the summer before transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gibbons discovered that she suffered from manic depression and was eventually hospitalized several times for treatment. In 1984, she married Michael Gibbons, with whom she had three children, but later divorced. While at the University of North Carolina, Gibbons studied southern literature under Louis Rubin, who had a profound influence on her writing and her career. Rubin encouraged her to finish the manuscript for Ellen Foster, and to publish the novel through the university's Algonquin Press. Gibbons has won numerous awards, including the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for Ellen Foster; a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; and the PEN/Revson Foundation Fiction Fellowship for a writer thirty-five years old or younger in 1990. Gibbons continues to write and lives in Raleigh with her second husband and their five children.

Major Works

Gibbons's first novel, Ellen Foster, is about a displaced young girl who watches her mother die as the result of a self-induced overdose. After suffering sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of her father, state authorities eventually intervene and remove Ellen from the house. Ellen then experiences a series of difficult situations and suffers various forms of abuse from her biological family. Only when Ellen joins a “foster” family is she able to find nurturing and acceptance. Along her journey, Ellen undergoes profound changes, including abandoning her inherited prejudices against African Americans and learning to accept her best friend, Starletta, as her equal. A Virtuous Woman (1989) tells the story of Jack and Ruby Stokes, who reminisce about their unlikely relationship, while they deal with Ruby's imminent death from cancer at the age of 45. A Cure for Dreams (1991) follows four generations of women as they live through hardships and learn from each other's stories. The novel is narrated by Marjorie, the great-granddaughter in a large southern family. Charms for the Easy Life (1993) revolves around Charlie Kate, a folk healer in North Carolina whose husband left her to raise their daughter, Sophia. Years later, Sophia discovers that her own marriage is dissolving, and that she will have to raise her daughter alone. When Sophia's husband dies, Charlie Kate moves in, and the three women form a feminine collective. Sights Unseen (1995) relates the effects that a mother's manic depression has on her daughter and is based on Gibbons's own experiences with depression. In On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (1998), Emma Garnet Tate, a nineteenth-century daughter of a Virginia plantation owner, seeks to escape her father's tyrannical rule. Her escape is ultimately achieved by a marriage to Quincy Lowell, a well-to-do doctor, who takes her away to a new life in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Critical Reception

While reviewers have compared Gibbons to Eudora Welty and other southern writers, most have recognized Gibbons as a unique voice in southern literature. Kathryn McKee has stated, “In focusing her novel on female discourse, Gibbons distinguishes her work both from the fiction written by the forefathers of the southern renascence and from the writing produced by her southern literary contemporaries.” Many critics have applauded Gibbons's realistic portrayal of contemporary southern life. They also have commended her deft use of dialogue, because it generally avoids the contrivances of southern colloquialisms and skillfully arranges a cadence to give the characters' voices their southern flavor. Nancy Lewis has stated, “With a vernacular authenticity that leads us to believe she didn't need to do her homework, she has presented us with stories and characters most definitely real, uncontrived, and of their time.” While well-received by critics and readers alike, one of the criticisms voiced against Ellen Foster has been that the anti-racism message is somewhat dulled by the characterization of Starletta as a voiceless cog in the machinery of Ellen's life. Earlier in her career, some critics accused Gibbons of drawing one-dimensional male characters who act as mere foils for her female heroines. However, Gibbons has been frequently praised for the economy of her writing style. Lewis has surmised, “Perhaps it is the southern storyteller's inherited practice of honing and editing to please the listener's ear that has given Kaye Gibbons her skill in economy and structure.” Throughout her career, Gibbons has found a loyal audience of readers and largely appreciative critics. Jane Fisher has summed up her popularity stating, “This wide acclaim stems from her ability to find comedy in tragedy and moral beauty in ugliness.”

Stephen Souris (essay date Summer 1992)

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SOURCE: “Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman: A Bakhtinian/Iserian Analysis of Conspicuous Agreement,” in Southern Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 99-115.

[In the following essay, Souris uses the narrative theories of Mikhail Bakhtin and Wolfgang Iser to analyze the multiple narration of Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman.]

And after it all, after it's all said and done, I'll still have to say, Bless you, Ruby. You were a fine partner, and I miss you.

—Jack Stokes

The bare story of Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman (1989) is simple enough. When we stand back from the moment-to-moment experience of this multiple-narrator novel, it settles in our memory as the story of the relationship between a man named Jack and a woman named Ruby who lived together for a quarter of a century in rural North Carolina. The novel details how they met and fulfilled each other's basic existential need for the attention and love of another. It also portrays their disappointment over not being able to have children, Ruby's death from lung cancer, and Jack's desperation, after his wife's death, from not knowing how to cook for himself and keep house.

Such a summary of the novel, however, cannot do justice to the narratological uniqueness of A Virtuous Woman. As a multiple-narrator novel in the tradition of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the decentered narrative mode sets up interesting dynamics and raises various aesthetic issues. By drawing from the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin and Wolfgang Iser—two theorists of novelness who are especially relevant to multiple-monologue novels—we can assess the complexities of Gibbons's book. Bakhtin's theory of dialogized heteroglossia, applied to a multiple-narrator novel, leads one to look at the nature, extent, and genuineness of the multiple voices; the degree to which the commitment to a variety of different voices results in centrifugal or disorderly tendencies; the way in which intermingling of perspectives within single monologues (what I call “intra-monologue dialogicity”) functions as a counter-centrifugal, ordering force; and the way in which relationship across monologues (what I call “inter-monologue dialogicity”) also serves to provide structure and cohesion in multiple first-person monologue novels. Iser picks up where Bakhtin leaves off (both in their respective articulations and in my use of them) because although Bakhtin suggests he would consider the dialogic potential of utterances such as monologues set side-by-side (especially in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays), he devotes most of his attention instead to the examination of dialogicity within single utterances. Iser's phenomenologically rigorous examination of the way a reader constructs a text by making connections between sections during a moment-by-moment processing of the narrative is perfectly suited to the task of examining the dialogic potential across monologues in multiple-narrator novels. This unique hybrid of narratological models can uncover features of A Virtuous Woman—or any other multiple-narrator novel—that would not be as apparent without the special rigor of Bakhtin's and Iser's theories.

Before drawing on Bakhtin and Iser to get at the dynamics of this multiple-narrator novel, it will be useful to touch upon the salient features of A Virtuous Woman when it is considered in the context of other multiple-narrator novels so that an overall sense of its uniqueness can be given at the outset. Like Louise Erdrich's Tracks, it limits the multi-perspectivalism to just two voices, and, like Tracks, it alternates between the two, without non-monologue interchapter material. Through this turn taking, the story of Jack and Ruby's life together is conveyed. With each monologue consisting of an installment of the story, the narrative progresses in a fairly linear and chronological manner. The two voices are very distinct, in personality as well as language. Each is presented as if talking casually to a listener, even though no audience is present.1 At the end of her first monologue, Ruby asks, “Don't you believe it to be so?” (14). And Jack, at one point, says, “Listen and let me tell what else I think about it” (95). At another point he says, “Listen and tell me if you don't hear something that won't turn your stomach” (109). The audience is none other than the reader, as is often the case with contemporary multiple-narrator novels: when it becomes clear that the monologists are not speaking to anyone in particular, readers realize that they are the audience.

The presentation of the story is actually more complicated than I have suggested, as will usually be the case when one attempts to extract a story from the discourse of a multiple-narrator novel. First, the narrative begins after Ruby's death and then circles back to show us what led up to it—much like Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson begins with the gunning down of Watson and then shows us what led up to it. Another complicating factor is that although the “story” of their life together is presented chronologically, with each monologist sharing in the linear presentation, Ruby is presented talking shortly before her death about their life together as she tries to cook enough food to keep Jack fed for several months after her death (one review of the novel is entitled “As Ruby Lay Dying” [Powell]); he, on the other hand, is presented reminiscing after her death, apparently after he has eaten his way to the bottom of the freezer full of food she prepared.2 It is only through the careful pacing and editing by the author as arranger that their accounts are synchronized.

One of the most salient features of this novel is the agreement it foregrounds between the two narrators. As we shall see, the nature of their agreement is remarkable, given the tendency for narratives that work by way of multiple narrators to flaunt disagreement. A Virtuous Woman thus belongs at the opposite end of the spectrum from Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson and Auchincloss's The House of the Prophet regarding the use to which the multiple narrator mode is put.

Another remarkable feature of this novel, when it is considered in the context of contemporary multiple-narrator fiction, is its switch in the final chapter to traditional omniscient third-person narration. I can imagine only two possible reactions to this radical deviation from the series of alternating first-person monologues: either relief or disappointment. A reader like Robert Towers, who, writing about Erdrich's Tracks, declares, “[T]he narration of events is kept at such a pitch that finally one wishes to stop one's ears” (40), would probably experience relief.

Finally, any discussion of this novel's salient features should mention the epigraph. An excerpt from Proverbs 31: 10–25, “The Good Wife,” it presents a highly idealized notion of what an ideal wife in Biblical times would do. The passage from which the epigraph is taken also refers to the ideal wife's children and her fear of the Lord. The following story presents us with a very contemporary woman who is not ideal in the Biblical sense. She had neither children nor fear of the Lord. An interesting tension is thus established between the epigraph and the narrative, drawing our attention to the completely unidealized nature of the characters constituting this story. Epigraphs to novels are, of course, always important; but when an author of a multiple-narrator novel includes an epigraph, it plays an especially important role given the author's inability—usually—to provide the kind of commentary that is possible in third-person narratives.

Having considered the salient features of this multiple-monologue novel, we can now approach it from the perspective of Bakhtin's interest in multiple voices and Iser's emphasis on reader participation in the construction of the text.

A Bakhtinian/Iserian analysis of A Virtuous Woman requires first taking up the issue of heteroglossia. We need to ask how Bakhtin's definition of heteroglossia as “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices,” and his description of it as “the unification of highly heterogeneous and incompatible material … with the plurality of consciousness-centers not reduced to a single ideological common denominator” (Problems, 6, 17) helps us assess the multi-voicedness of this multiple-narrator novel.

A Virtuous Woman, while restricting itself to only two voices, does present us with a compelling variety in the two consciousnesses depicted and it presents each personality as a fully valid entity. The title is therefore misleading because the novel is as much about Jack as it is about Ruby; it is about their relationship. They are both fully realized and given equal time.

Jack is a simple, down-to-earth fellow, as we see on the very first page: “My wife's name was Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes. She was a real pretty woman. Used to I used to lay up in bed and say, ‘Don't take it off in the dark! I want to see it all!’” (3). He has alcoholic tendencies, although he won't admit it: “I'm not really what I would call a drinking man. I hardly ever take a drink except when I need one” (4). Ruby cooks and cleans for him. He doesn't like intellectuals: when Roland, the son of Jack and Ruby's neighbors, ends up in jail and sociological explanations are offered for how Roland could have gone wrong, Jack says, “I think folks in town in general try to think too goddamn much” (112). Ruby offers this assessment of Jack's simplicity: “[T]here's something raw and right there on the surface with him. Sometimes, I swear, he's just like a child. You have to be so careful” (9).

Gibbons exploits the opportunity to further characterize Jack through the language he uses. The son of a tenant farmer and a poor tenant farmer himself, Jack's grammar is what one would expect. Characteristic of his speech are the constructions, “Used to I used to” (as we've seen), “it won't so much like I feel like” (60), and “trying to shove Jesus down I and mama's throats” (16). Furthermore, his language is relatively simple. There are no sophisticated words or constructions, and thus—since the language we use both reflects and determines our perceptions—his observations about himself, Ruby, and life in general tend to be simplistic. For example, his way of summing up Ruby's childhood is to say it was “too good” and his way of summing up her life with Woodrow, her abusive first husband, is to say it was “too bad” (5). Although these simple labels are accurate enough, his unsophisticated language does not allow him to get at subtleties. Gibbons's use of unsophisticated and “grammatically incorrect” language to further characterize Jack is significant in the context of other multiple-narrator novels: frequently such narratives, while being committed through the very narrative mode to a heteroglot variety of viewpoints, do not fully exploit the opportunity to differentiate one character from another through the kind of language used.

Gibbons also makes a contribution to the body of contemporary multiple-narrator novels through her decision to include this relatively simple-minded fellow. Faulkner would take that idea to a compelling extreme and make poetry out of it (e.g., Benjy in The Sound and the Fury), but using such a character is risky for most writers of multiple-narrator novels because the reader may lose interest. Gibbons handles this situation very well.

Ruby's voice is very different from Jack's. The daughter of genteel landowners, she has led a protected life without hardship or difficult choices. Indeed, her attraction to the rogue Woodrow is explained—through her own sophisticated self-analysis—as the result of that over-protected, privileged childhood: she saw him as a victim and he thus took on heroic proportions for her. In contrast to Jack, she loves to think. She can even spend an entire day at it, meditating all by herself. The page after Jack denounces folks in town for thinking too much, she tells us: “All yesterday, all day yesterday all I did was think, and then I waited for Jack, waited for him twice to come home and spell me from all my thoughts” (113). Her meditative monologues are full of sensitive observations about life. Both her thoughts and her language are more sophisticated than Jack's.

One of the triumphs of this novel is the rendition through specific and idiosyncratic details of two very different personalities. With this marked difference between the two and the fact that the first-person mode is used to characterize each from within, the novel, while restricting itself to only two voices, is impressively heteroglot and “highly heterogeneous.” Approaching it from the context of Bakhtin's theory of novelness helps us gain an appreciation of the multi-perspectivalism of A Virtuous Woman.

The next question to ask about a multiple-narrator novel when approaching it from a Bakhtinian perspective is whether or not its commitment to heteroglossia results in a certain relativism and, if so, what the epistemological implications of that are. Bakhtin's definition of heteroglossia quoted above—including the reference to “the unification of … incompatible material”—already implies a certain relativism. His oft-quoted declaration that the heteroglot, Galilean novel “is a perception that has been made conscious of the vast plenitude of … languages—all of which are equally capable of being ‘languages of truth,’ but, since such is the case, all of which are equally relative, reified and limited” (Dialogic, 366–67) is an important declaration to keep in mind when approaching a multiple-narrator novel from a Bakhtinian perspective. Related to the inquiry into whether a multi-perspectival novel offers a relativized view of reality is the question about the degree of centrifugality that results from an insistence on multiple perspectives without a single, monologizing correct perspective. To what extent, we can ask, does each narrator's perspective function as a centripetal force with the sum total of the various centripetal forces being a centrifugal one?

Jack and Ruby are different enough—as my brief summaries of their personalities should suggest—to tempt a reader to expect and look for such relativism and centrifugality. Approaching A Virtuous Woman from the vantage point of other multiple-narrator novels that emphasize difference and disagreement between narrators, like As I Lay Dying and Killing Mister Watson (and many others), one is ready with the slightest hint of difference and disagreement to read A Virtuous Woman as a radically relativized, and therefore centrifugal, narrative. The novel's opening seems to set us up for precisely such a novel, suggesting an uneasy tension between husband and wife. Jack, in the novel-opening monologue, tells us about the time Ruby, dying of cancer in the hospital, asked for a cigarette. Propped up in an oxygen tent, all she could do was motion to him. He thought she was blowing him a kiss and was annoyed to discover she was gesturing for a cigarette. Ruby's first section likewise contains some hints of tension. She complains that Jack is incorrigibly forgetful, and she tells of the ugly scene between them when he heard she had terminal cancer: she wanted to be comforted and all he could do was declare, “Anybody mean as the old squaw'll outlive everybody” (8–9). She then launches into what appears to be a feminist diatribe against men in general, arguing that they are dependent on women to keep life going and that they fall apart when their women become incapacitated. She declares,

If you want to see a man afraid just put him in a room with a sick woman who was once strong. See, I know now that this world is built up on strong women. Built up and kept up by them too, them kneeling, stooping, pulling, bending, and rising up when they need to go and do what needs to get done. And when a man sees a woman like that sick and hurt, especially the kind of man who knows a woman's strength but can't confess it, when he sees her sick or hurt it terrifies him, like he's witnessing a chunk of the universe coming loose and he knows he doesn't have what it takes to stick it back together.


Two monologues into the novel, we might think we're in for an up-close look at a sensitive woman who is unhappy with her insensitive husband. By presenting these hints of conflict right at the outset through a narrative strategy that encourages the reader to look for differences between narrators, Gibbons prepares us for a very imperfect relationship—indeed, she tempts us into thinking that it was a terribly compromised one.

There are other disagreements and differences between these two that could be exploited for effect in order to establish the radically relative way two human beings can perceive things. We've already seen that they are two very different personality types, pointed up by the juxtaposing of Chapter 11, in which Jack asserts that people tend to “think too goddamn much” (112), with Chapter 12, in which Ruby tells us how she can spend the entire day thinking to herself. Other examples of how this narrative has the potential for being a highly relativized multiple-narrator novel are Ruby's telling Jack she doesn't like him shooting target practice because it takes him away from her, when the truth is that it reminds her of her former husband; and Ruby's telling Jack when they met for the first time that she was a researcher (to prevent him from thinking she was just a tenant farmer's wife). Much mileage could be gotten from such lies to show two people who are caught up in their own subjective realities.

In spite of ample opportunity to suggest the gulf between consciousnesses (even to the point of portraying subjectivity to a solipsistic extreme), however, Gibbons conspicuously exploits the multiple-narrator mode to emphasize the shared reality that defined this relationship. This is one of the most interesting aspects of A Virtuous Woman when it is compared with other multiple first-person monologue novels. It is also the most important way in which the narrative counters the relativistic and centrifugal tendencies inherent in the narrative mode. Repeatedly, the narrative sets up an event, subject, or person that functions as a common denominator between the two narrators (a technique called triangulation), and, sometimes through juxtaposing monologues in which the common denominator appears in each one, insists on agreement.

One example of Gibbons's radically different use of the technique of triangulation (when her novel is compared with other multiple-narrator novels) is Jack's and Ruby's attitude toward religion. Neither one believes in God in a conventional way. She does believe in a spirit that lives on after the body dies (117), but, she explains, “I don't believe I had a maker. I don't believe anybody did. … It's just not the way Jack and I think things are organized, if you can call everything that goes on organization. We'd just rather stay amazed at how it all happens, I mean this world bumping right along with no plan at all” (116). We have no reason to doubt her claim to be speaking for the two of them—“this heathen couple” (118) she calls Jack and herself—because we have previously heard Jack's harsh thoughts about Christianity.

Listen to how God up there is supposed to make everything and everybody and everything's due to turn out according to his will and all. And we get the wars and the people starving and people hurting people and animals the way Roland did [he hung Ruby's mule], and I'm supposed to go down there to Ephesus on Sunday morning and say, ‘Thank you, Jesus, thank you for the sunshine and the food on my table and all the birds singing and the likes of Adolf Hitler and Roland Stanley.’ No thank you! I'll have no part of it! Beats the hell out of me why somebody'd want to sit up somewhere and think up harm. …


While their disbelief takes on a different cast with each (his is a Job-like resistance and hers is more out of a preference for a spiritual alternative), their essential agreement contributes to Gibbons's unusual agenda of using the multiple-narrator mode to show the possibilities of understanding, communication, and union between people.

Another example of how Gibbons uses triangulation to establish agreement is seen with the subject of Jack's reluctance to accept the land Ruby inherited from her parents. Jack explains: “I just didn't want a place I didn't know” (60); Ruby reports, in the very next monologue, that Jack simply “couldn't take a strange place” (75).

Yet another example of conspicuous agreement occurs at the outset of the novel. Jack tells us:

God, you ought to've seen her in the hospital, weak, trying to sit up, limp as a dishrag. She'd lost down so much, looked like she'd literally almost shook the meat off, all that coughing and spewing up she'd done. If you want to feel helpless as a baby sometime, you go somewhere and watch such as that. Seemed like every time she'd cough a cold shudder'd run up and down me.


Men who feel “helpless as a baby” when their women are out of commission are just what Ruby rails against in her monologue immediately following this opening monologue. The narrative does nothing to suggest that her forcefully articulated position needs to be counterbalanced with a different perspective.

The most interesting example of radical agreement between the two monologists has to do with the moment they met. The accounts agree in all details. There is no need to quote from their respective accounts: a summary will do justice to each version. She was sitting under a tree smoking and he came by hauling manure. A skinny, unattractive man, he sauntered up to her as if she were just another female to flirt with; however, they had a free and casual conversation devoid of the usual exaggerated dynamic between man and woman in such circumstances precisely because he was no Romeo. She lied about doing research on migrant workers, not wanting him to think she was the wife of just such a worker; he knew she was lying, and she knew he knew it. After hearing Woodrow was her husband, he then told her what he knew about Woodrow's altercation, and he offered his help if she ever needed it. The only thing Gibbons doesn't do here to enhance the conspicuousness of the agreement is juxtapose the two accounts through contiguous monologues (his account occurs in Chapter 5, pp. 45–48, and her account is found in Chapter 8, pp. 68–72).

Gibbons's refusal to show radically different reactions to common events, subjects, or people acting as intersections between monologues in order to suggest the subjectivity of perception is a radical departure from the norm in the multiple-narrator novel, and is one reason why the novel coheres as much as it does in spite of the centrifugal tendencies of such decentered, multi-perspectival narratives.

In addition to taunting us, as it were, with a refusal to establish difference between narrators through the technique of triangulation, this narrative counters the centrifugal potential inherent in the form by showing how simple existential need is behind Jack's interest in Ruby and Ruby's interest in Jack. Although very different in personality, they are united at a level that is deeper than their differences. As an abused woman who did not realize what she was getting into when she left her genteel background to elope with Woodrow, Ruby turned to Jack for security. Jack tells us, “All she said was she wanted somebody to take care of her, and if I promised to, she'd marry me” (46). But Jack also got something out of the arrangement: her love for him made him feel like a man. He declares, “[B]efore I married Ruby I'd felt like a boy on the outside looking in, but Ruby, when she loved me, I said, This is what is must feel like to be a man” (46). It is the similar desire and need for another that overcomes their differences and overcomes the potential of this narrative form to overwhelm us with epistemological confusion from a chorus of competing subjectivities.

Although Jack and Ruby are united at this deeper level and agree on the fundamental details of their life together, they are very different people, which in itself contributes to the coherence of a potentially disconcerting decentered narrative: through the regular alternation between the two voices—the one a sensitive, meditative, “feminine” voice (Gibbons works with conventional gender differences in this novel)—a rhythm is set up which confers a certain order upon the narrative. (It is this rhythm between the two voices, ultimately, that prevents Jack's simple-mindedness from ever becoming boring.)3

Another way in which A Virtuous Woman counters the centrifugality inherent in the multiple-narrator mode is through a strictly linear story line that threads its way through the monologues. This points up the highly artificial nature of the narrative: separated by time and death, Jack and Ruby tell the story of their life together as if they were seated side by side, taking turns in offering installments that advance the story with each change of speaker. Many contemporary American multiple-narrator novels opt for this kind of coherence through a linear story line advancing through the monologues (as opposed to the alternative strategy, which The Sound and the Fury best exemplifies); but Gibbons's novel is unique in separating the voices so radically in space and time. This distinct separation between the moment of speaking for the monologists is a source of confusion until one reads far enough to understand what Gibbons is doing. The ultimate effect of creating the narrative from carefully synchronized voices, however, is more than the imposition of order upon the narrative: it suggests a bond between the two that transcends death. Gibbons thus has more of an excuse for and artistic purpose in constructing the narrative via strictly chronological installments than is usually the case in multiple-narrator novels with a forward-moving story line.

The next Bakhtinian issue to consider in analyzing this multiple-narrator novel is the question of intra-monologue dialogicity—that is, the intermingling and interpenetration of perspectives within single utterances. This would be another way to counter the centrifugal tendencies of such a narrative. Assuming that his analysis of Dostoevsky's epistolary novel Poor Folk is an indication of what he would do with any multiple-narrator novel, Bakhtin would probably look for evidence of one monologist's awareness of and grappling with the ideas of the other monologist, such that, in his formulation, utterances that externally resemble monologues take the form of “microdialogues.” It is my contention that Bakhtin would see “dialogized monologues” (Problems, 248), or monologists speaking with an “intense sideward glance at someone else's word” (Problems, 203) as a primary counter-centrifugal force in multiple-narrator novels. A Virtuous Woman, like other recent American multiple-narrator novels, is not noteworthy for the way it portrays individual consciousness consisting of an active confrontation with other viewpoints—where “[t]he hero's attitude toward himself is inseparably bound up with his attitude toward another, and with the attitude of another toward him” (Problems, 207)—or an “infiltration of anticipated responses” (Problems, 246) into the monologists' talk. No double-voiced discourse can be said to exist in the monologues of Gibbons's novel like Bakhtin illustrates is the case in the letters between Makar and Varvara in Poor Folk. Approaching contemporary multiple-narrator novels from Bakhtin's extraordinary sensitivity to and fondness for such double-voiced discourse within single utterances points up the absence of such sophisticated depictions of consciousness in novels that do not feature it. Without Bakhtin, the absence of this might go unnoticed. In any case, given the extraordinary degree of agreement, and thus coherence, that Gibbons's novel has, the lack of intra-monologue dialogicity does not make it a more scattered novel: it coheres well enough without such intermingling of perspectives at the site of individual consciousness.4

Wolfgang Iser can be profitably added to our analysis of A Virtuous Woman because of the way his phenomenological model of the process of reading provides the concepts and the terminology for articulating how what I am calling inter-monologue dialogicity can be said to exist in multiple-narrator novels. Iser offers a more complete account of how the centrifugal potential of a multiple-narrator novel can be countered. Padgett Powell's analysis of A Virtuous Woman in the New York Times Book Review is pertinent at this point because of his observation about the separation by time and death of the voices: “There is considerable risk in separating these two voices by time and death, for the alternating monologues are sufficiently out of phase that their constructive union is the work of the reader …” (12). My argument about this novel, which Iser's model helps articulate, is that a willing and non-resisting reader will gladly create the dialogue between the voices that confers order upon this seemingly fragmented narrative. Such active work on the part of the reader is in the service of exploring the inter-monologue dialogicity that Bakhtin implies would exist in a multiple-narrator novel. A reader enters into a “dyadic interaction” (Act, 66) with the elements of the text, where the text is seen as consisting of “instructions for the production of the signified” (Act, 65). Meaning for Iser is “text guided, but reader produced” (“Interview,” 71). If intra-monologue dialogicity is merely uncovered through careful scrutiny of a reader (such as Bakhtin analyzing passages in Dostoevsky), inter-monologue dialogicity exists only in the mind of the reader, with the reader functioning as the very site of the dialogicity.

What all this amounts to with most multiple-narrator novels is the Iserian reader's embarking upon the relativizing task suggested by Bakhtin's cryptic assertion in “The Problem of the Text” that “[a]ny live, competent, and dispassionate observation from any position, from any viewpoint, always retains its value and its meaning … [because] [t]he one-sided and limited nature of a viewpoint … can always be corrected, augmented, transformed … with the help of like observations from others' viewpoints” (124): the balancing of one perspective against another in many multiple-narrator novels is through the active involvement of the reader. In A Virtuous Woman, what the active reader attempting to get the monologues to enter into a dialogue with each other does—to his or her surprise, perhaps—is not balance one report with the conflicting information of another account; rather, s/he establishes the very agreement of the monologists through entering the Unbestimmtheitsstellen, or gaps, between the monologues and actively juxtaposing one account against another where they converge. The reader of Gibbons's novel is not pressed into service to relativize the narrative through careful juxtapositions and comparisons of accounts as the reader looks backwards and forwards at each moment of the reading process. Instead, the reader is pressed into service to establish the similarity between monologists, as we saw with our earlier analysis of Jack and Ruby's meeting under the tree. That example is especially noteworthy because the two accounts of the incident are not juxtaposed through contiguous placement of monologues: the reader must actively look backwards from Ruby's account to link it up with Jack's account a few monologues earlier. The theme horizon or foreground/background Gestalten, then, of A Virtuous Woman—the structures that a reader creates, in Iser's scheme, through juxtaposition of passages—consist of the reader's actively yoking together separate moments. But instead of a gestalt defined by difference, the gestalt is one of similarity. Perhaps an image consisting of tuning forks can explain what occurs in Gibbons's novel: what the Iserian reader does with a text like A Virtuous Woman is bring together accounts spanning monologues and speakers so that they resonate just as two tuning forks can resonate with each other if one is made to sound and is brought close enough to the other.

Iser's phenomenologically rigorous model of the reading process is thus custom made to help us articulate the nature and mechanism of the intermonologue dialogicity of A Virtuous Woman, as well as other multiple-narrator novels. The reader responds to the gaps, or conceptual spaces, between monologues to effect the links between narrative installments—the links in Gibbons's novel being essentially links of agreement suggesting that an unusual degree of harmony existed between Jack and Ruby. This meaning of the text is thus produced by the reader, responding to and governed by the prompts of the text. Iser would not allow for free-association or the free play of the reader's subjective predispositions: the inter-monologue dialogicity perceived and effected by the reader as the site of that dialogicity must lend itself to “intersubjective analysis” (Act, 49–50).

Another way Iser's theory helps uncover and explain inter-monologue dialogicity, or what Bakhtin calls “[d]ialogical relations among utterances” (“Problem,” 114), in A Virtuous Woman has to do with feedback loops. Part of his theory of the reading process consists of the proposition that a reader makes provisional judgments as the text is encountered that will be modified as the reader encounters new information. The unit defined by Chapters 13 and 14 of Gibbons's novel provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate the usefulness of this subtlety of Iser's theory. Chapter 13 opens with Jack describing how Ruby's death has affected him:

I'm sick of being by myself, sick of myself, sick all the way around of looking around and not seeing a damn thing but the four walls and my old ugly self looking back out of dirty, smeared up mirrors. Ruby'd be ashamed. This place looks like the pigs slept in it, and I walk around all day looking like the witches rode me all night, raggedy, messy. I know it but I haven't been able to do anything about it. You just can't expect a man to take and do without a woman when he's done with one long as I did.


While the description that follows of the pathetically ineffectual would-be maid, Mavis Washington, is humorous, we are nevertheless left with a sense of disgust, especially when Jack says at the end of this monologue: “Isn't it every man's dream that when his wife dies he has somebody to step in and do for him?” (139). We have to wonder at this point in the novel if the narrative isn't arguing against Jack because he seems only concerned about the loss of a housekeeper in Ruby.

When we encounter Chapter 14, however, our harsh assessment of Jack is modified by the way this monologue reminds us that Ruby had her own needs fulfilled through Jack. She says, “I did want somebody to take care of me. I needed it. And when I felt all that goodness coming from Jack, it didn't matter what the person looked like that sent it out to me. Maybe I did want a daddy, but that's okay, too” (143). Ruby tells us that her family's maid was perceptive when she declared, after hearing that Ruby married a man twenty years her senior: “Shame the law don't allow Miss Ruby to marry her daddy. All she wanting is to marry her daddy” (143). What she says here makes us recall Jack's reporting that “(a)ll she said was she wanted somebody to take care of her, and if I promised to, she'd marry me. I said then, I say now, ‘That's the best thing in the world for me, for the both of us, best thing for anybody to do for somebody’” (46). It is as if the narrative were playing games with us here, tempting us into dismissing Jack as a selfish, insensitive man who only needed a wife to take care of him, but then rescuing him from dismissal by reminding us with the next monologue that Ruby got something out of the deal, too. The fact that Gibbons departs from the chronological pattern established throughout the novel in bringing Ruby back from the dead, so to speak (in Chapter 14), makes this strategy more transparent. Thus, an interesting kind of inter-monologue dialogicity is established through the active role of the reader who pairs up the two monologues. The result of our momentarily harsh judgment of Jack in Chapter 13 and our revised, more tolerant judgment after Chapter 14 is that our tolerance of him is surer because it has been challenged but reaffirmed. Being told by a conventional omniscient third-person narrative voice that Jack and Ruby each got something out of the relationship would have a radically different effect because it would not require as active an engagement from the reader.

The final aspect of A Virtuous Woman I'd like to discuss in the context of a Bakhtinian/Iserian analysis is its concluding chapter. Gibbons's novel stands out in the context of other multiple-narrator narratives for the fact that it ends with a section narrated from an omniscient third-person perspective, bringing to a close the rhythm between voices that has defined the novel up to this point. The opening paragraph of Chapter 16 is remarkable for the complete abandonment it signals of the multiple first-person mode. It presents and comments on Jack's struggle to adjust to Ruby's death, and his hoping her spirit would visit him at night. Because of the significance of this strategy in the context of other recent American multiple-narrator novels, I will present the opening paragraph in full.

For every minute Jack slept that night he was awake for two. Every branch scraping the roof was Ruby descending, every dog scrambling underneath the porch was Ruby rising. Only when he woke up at daylight and released himself from his damp, tangled sheets did he realize that his own body had fooled his heart the night before, just as trees and dogs had caused him to lie and wait. And sleeping and awake he had dreamt of Ruby. He needed relief from his night, but holding her pillow and crying as he'd done other nights would not help him. His frustration and anger had rooted in and taken hold well below the place where tears start, and so would not be washed up nor out by them. His pain was the sort that burrows in and tortures until the source of the struggle is understood, reconciled, and removed.


This is in the best 19th-century omniscient mode, where the narrative freely comments on and analyzes characters. The last two sentences are especially noteworthy for the subtle psychologizing they attempt. For the first time in this novel, we are offered “objective” commentary that sums up in an interpretive fashion what we have seen in Jack from his own perspective.

Not only does the final chapter comment on Jack, it also presents the perspectives of Burr and his daughter June through italicized interior monologues. (Jack is also allowed to speak in interior monologues.) We thus get a variety of outside voices in this final chapter, in addition to the third-person narrative in which they are embedded, which provides us with additional perspectives on Jack and Ruby.

The chapter ends with an interior monologue showing Jack's thoughts. It concludes with, “And now, let me try to live” (165). This confers significant closure on the narrative because of its attempt to suggest everything would be fine, especially with Jack's receiving some land from Burr. Jack's struggle to adjust to Ruby's death is effectively over. The novel thus ends on an optimistic note.

My reaction to this final chapter is entirely negative, and while I usually focus on what is accomplished with any particular narrative strategy, I cannot resist commenting on what is sacrificed through this concluding chapter. The falling off is especially apparent when A Virtuous Woman is read in the context of other multiple-narrator novels. I believe the final sentence compromises the novel because, in Bakhtinian terms, it is a betrayal of the openendedness and “unfinalizability” that the multiple first-person mode allows for so well. It is also an artificially imposed order: after we see Jack distraught, the resolution to carry on is too facilely asserted. As for incorporating the additional voices of Burr and June and opening with a full-blown omniscient narrative voice, we do not need the additional perspectives offered by the omniscient voice and the voices of Burr and June. What we learn from Burr and June doesn't really amount to much, anyway. The entire chapter represents an abdication of the commitment to a rhythm established by the voices of Jack and Ruby, dialogized by the reader. This chapter seems to come out of a nostalgia for an orderly narrative conclusion that artificially ties up the loose ends. I wonder if Gibbons didn't originally end with Jack in the previous chapter (which would have framed the narrative nicely), only to have been told by an editor that she couldn't leave her readers dangling with an ending that did not resolve things. But ending with Jack in Chapter 15, preparing for another visitation of his wife's spirit by washing the sheets and sprinkling them with her favorite powder, would have been perfect: it would allow the novel to end on a convincing and authentic note of imbalance, entirely consistent with what the loss of Ruby means to Jack. A Virtuous Woman would make an even more remarkable contribution to the array of contemporary multiple-narrator novels by ending with the final paragraph of its penultimate chapter, where we find Jack trying to “woo” (147) Ruby's spirit into visiting him:

And I'll tell you, having your dead wife haint you [during the night] can really tip your day off to a fine start. Outside I've got the sheets flapping in the wind, I had the coffee turn out this morning, and I got a free sample of gargle in the mailbox. I think about all I've got left to do is fix up for her and say, “Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes! Come on down!”


Writing about A Virtuous Woman in the Women's Review of Books, Marilyn Chandler, titling her piece “Limited Partnership,” asserts that Jack and Ruby's marriage was a “sturdy but unfilling compromise reached through a tacit negotiation over the terms of each other's needs.” As she reads the novel, the marriage is more about “survival” than “satisfaction” (21). My sense of this book is very different: although I would not exactly call it an “ode to joy,” as one of the novel's advertising blurbs puts it (inside the front cover), I do experience it as a tribute to the understanding and togetherness that is possible between two human beings—even if, as the back cover announces, Jack and Ruby “didn't fall in love so much as they simply found each other and held on for dear life.” This special bond between Jack and Ruby is epitomized by the passage in which Jack describes the time Ruby asked him, without offering an explanation, “to hold her real tight from the back” and then cried for a long time:

I knew Ruby. I knew she was crying for babies she wished had been born to us, ones I couldn't give her. And as ignorant a man as I am, I knew what I was hearing. I knew the sound of Ruby crying for babies the way I know a robin's call, the same way I know the sparrow's.


Gibbons makes the novel's tribute to the bond between Jack and Ruby more palpable by not making her portrait of this couple overly idealized. Instead, she grounds it in concrete and sometimes unattractive particulars (which the book's epigraph from Proverbs helps us realize).

One might wonder why Gibbons uses the multiple-narrator mode if she wants to insist on and pay tribute to the togetherness of Jack and Ruby, since the multiple-narrator novel is usually used to exploit the opportunity to suggest a relativized and subjective epistemology. By employing a narrative mode that tempts us to look for difference and disagreement, we are the more impressed with and moved by the agreement we discover between Jack and Ruby. Using a narratological model that consists of a Bakhtin/Iser pairing allows us to raise questions about such a narrative that contributes to a definition and appreciation of the unusual degree of togetherness portrayed by the novel: Bakhtin's theory of novelness helps us raise questions about such a narrative's multi-perspectival nature and the consequences of it; and Iser's phenomenological theory of the reading process helps articulate how intermonologue dialogicity can be said to exist in such a narrative with the help—and through the agency—of the reader.


  1. Marilyn Chandler fails to appreciate the highly oral quality to the first-person narration by referring to the chapters as “interior monologues” (21).

  2. The difficulty of reading this novel created by the highly unusual strategy of having Jack and Ruby speak from different points in time is suggested by the fact that a reviewer can erroneously write, “In alternating interior monologues, Jack and Ruby remember and reflect upon their past in the weeks of Ruby's dying” (Chandler, 21; emphasis added).

  3. A similar rhythmical phenomenon can be said to exist in Erdrich's Tracks, where the regular alternation between the refreshing normalcy of Nanapush and the discomforting disturbance of Pauline defines the central dynamic of that novel, conferring a kind of order upon the potentially centrifugal narrative. A Virtuous Woman, however, while setting up a rhythm through the difference between two voices, does not play upon our emotions as much as Tracks does: we are not confronted with the same extremes in Gibbons's novel with which Erdrich's novel confronts us.

  4. There are a few moments in this novel where Gibbons seems to play with the possibilities of enriching a speaker's utterance and the quality of the consciousness portrayed through having that speaker imagine and respond to criticism. The first example occurs in the monologue where Jack is describing his need for a woman twenty years his junior. In this passage, he imagines a disapproving reaction from his audience:

    Think what you will! Shock, shock! I don't give a damn. If I gave a damn, I would've kept it to myself. I had to do what I had to do. See, a man like me does what he needs to do more often than he wants to, and I saw Ruby and I had to have her, needed her. She was the most gorgeous thing I'd ever seen in my life, sitting under Lonnie Hoover's big pecan tree that morning like a prize, and the thought of me going long as I had without one made me think, started me to think that I might could try for this girl. […]

    She wasn't but twenty then, and me forty, and it was almost five months from the day I met her that I married her. I know what it sounds like, like a old lecher got him a child-bride when her first husband wasn't even cold yet. Go ahead and think it. It just shows how much you don't know me, or Ruby.


    The second example comes from a monologue by Ruby in which she is describing the hell she went through with Woodrow: “Somebody could say, ‘If she loved her family so much, why didn't she run away and call someone to come get her?’ I thought about it a hundred times a day, believe you me” (37). She then explains why that was not possible.

    These two examples are the only passages in the novel where Gibbons attempts something approaching intra-monologue dialogicity, though the anticipation is of responses from the reader, not another character. Given the paucity of such examples in recent American multiple-narrator novels, the fact that Gibbons gives us two examples of it is very significant, even if she does not fully exploit in her novel the opportunity for enriching a monologue by having speakers anticipate responses from listeners or actively imagine and respond to the perspective of another speaker in the novel.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

———. “The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philosophy, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis.” Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 103–131.

———. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

———. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Chandler, Marilyn. “Limited Partnership.” Women's Review of Books, July, 1989: 21.

Gibbons, Kaye. A Virtuous Woman. New York: Random House, 1989.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

———. “Interview: Wolfgang Iser.” Diacritics 10 (1980): 57–74.

Powell, Padgett. “As Ruby Lay Dying.” New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1989: 12.

Towers, Robert. “Roughing It.” The New York Review of Books, November 19, 1988: 40–41.

Principal Works

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Ellen Foster (novel) 1987

A Virtuous Woman (novel) 1989

A Cure for Dreams (novel) 1991

Charms for the Easy Life (novel) 1993

Sights Unseen (novel) 1995

On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (novel) 1998

Julian Mason (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Kaye Gibbons (1960-),” in Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 156-68.

[In the following essay, Mason provides an overview of Gibbons's life and career.]

Kaye Gibbons has now published two more novels since she burst upon the public's awareness with her 1987 novel, Ellen Foster, to acclaim and awards. She has shown herself to be a skillful, imaginative, sensitive, and interesting novelist, who has taken the perseverance of the human spirit and Nash County, North Carolina, where she grew up, for her continuing literary domain, as she explores its people, ways, and past. Her work is bold and experimental, but easily accessible, winning for her a large body of readers. She is young, but already established, and not breaking stride as she continues to produce challenging and satisfying fiction at a steady pace.


The daughter of a tobacco farmer, Charles Batts, and his wife, Alice, who lived in the rural Nash County community of Bend of the River (near the Tar River), about seven miles south of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Kaye Batts was born on May 5, 1960, in a hospital in Wilson, North Carolina. She has a brother 13 years older than she, and a sister 9 years older. They are related to Nathaniel Batts, the first-known permanent white settler in North Carolina, who built a home in coastal North Carolina in 1655. She grew up on the family's farm in Nash County, which is in the upper center of the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina, experiencing the agricultural seasons and hot summers and being relatively poor.

Gibbons greatly admired her mother, who was called Shine and who provided order and stability through perseverance and hard work. After her mother killed herself at age 47 with an overdose of pills in March 1970, Gibbons stayed on with her father until she went to live with her mother's sister near Bailey, North Carolina, in 1971. This was not a satisfactory arrangement, and after Gibbons' alcoholic father died in May 1972 she moved to a foster home, also near Bailey, which she had chosen partly on the basis of observing at church the woman whose home it was. During 1972–73 she also had extended visits with various other relatives. In June 1973 her brother married, and she moved into his home in Rocky Mount and benefited from the interest in her shown by his wife. She lived there until she entered North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, in fall 1978, having graduated from Rocky Mount High School.

While growing up, Gibbons had watched television and read as much as possible, early becoming fascinated with both oral and written language and what could be done with it. In the fourth grade she discovered both the fiction and poetry of Poe, and later Shakespeare's sonnets and the works of numerous other writers. At one stage she wanted to be a lab technician, then later a lawyer; and she became more and more interested in the world beyond her immediate environs, and in reading. She also began writing and publishing poetry. She loved school and the discipline, order, stimulation, and opportunities for learning that it provided. In the rather chaotic year after her mother's death, school kept her going. In high school she was somewhat bookish and an outsider, though she also participated in some extracurricular activities. She went to North Carolina State University with a scholarship from the Veterans Administration, and she also worked at the university library. At the university she decided to major in political science, then switched to history, and finally to English, because in it more writing and analyzing of writing were required.

In the summer before she transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in fall 1980, Gibbons had manic-depressive problems, and in August 1981 she entered a hospital in Raleigh, staying there till March 1982, meanwhile again attending classes at North Carolina State. In 1983 she had another attack and remained out of school for some time. During this period she worked at various jobs, including as a waitress and in a bookstore. In 1984 she met Michael Gibbons, 12 years her senior, originally from Queens, New York, then a graduate student in landscape architecture at North Carolina State; and on May 12, 1984, they were married. They have three daughters—Mary (1984), Leslie (1987), and Louise (1989).

In summer 1985 she returned to classes at Chapel Hill, and in the fall she enrolled in Louis Rubin's course in Southern literature. During the course, in Rubin's lectures and in the writings of James Weldon Johnson, Mark Twain, and others, she encountered various emphases on the use of and validity for everyday speech in literature and on the relationships of language and place. Also, a voice came to her which led to her writing the poem “June Bug,” which was eventually published in the Carolina Quarterly, but more immediately was the stimulus for the thirty pages of fiction she began in November 1985 and showed to Rubin. He recognized her talent and at the end of November encouraged her to finish the work. In early January, Rubin had her first novel, Ellen Foster (1987). With little revision, it was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Then, in 1986, while Gibbons was taking a seminar in the Southern novel with Rubin, she wrote an essay on the Miranda stories of Katherine Anne Porter; it was soon published in the Kenyon Review.

Her second novel went through four drafts, the first of which was poor, but which yielded the principal male character for the final version, published by Algonquin as A Virtuous Woman (1989). For each of the first two novels her imagination had depended primarily on her memories and experiences and on those of her family. The third novel, A Cure for Dreams, which went through four drafts before being published by Algonquin (1991), required a good bit of research, the results of which were blended with memories or what Gibbons had heard from relatives and others, as the novel deals with decades before she was born.

In the early stages of work on it she had read Such as Us: Southern Voices of the Thirties (edited by Tom Terrill and Jerrold Hirsch, University of North Carolina Press, 1978), based on oral histories collected by the Federal Writers' Project under the direction of W. T. Couch. This led her to the hundreds of such personal histories transcribed by the project from interviews and available at the university library in Chapel Hill. Gibbons read these extensively, gathering not so much characters or actions but mostly metaphors, terms, language patterns, customs, and general ambience. She was impressed with the respect that the project's interviewers had for their subjects, how they helped the person's own voice come through. She also read printed collections of North Carolina folklore. However, while she used in the novel much that she found in her reading, if she needed a term that she did not have, she sometimes made up one of the same type as those she had encountered.

Gibbons' first two novels had been composed on a typewriter. For the third she used a computer. Although she had a study at the North Carolina State University library during 1989 and 1990, as its first (and then reappointed) Writer of the Year, most of her writing is done at home, often at night, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. This schedule helps keep her close to her children, who also are a high priority for her. The obligation has become more important following her recent divorce.

Although she does not plan to read, Gibbons has been a success on the reading circuit, and she makes appearances on radio and television. In October 1989 she shared the platform with Eudora Welty as the two invited speakers to inaugurate the annual Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium as part of the activities for the inauguration of the first woman president of Welty's alma mater, Mississippi University for Women. Gibbons spoke on the influence of Welty in her finding her own self as a writer. Gibbons also occasionally writes book reviews for the New York Times Book Review and other periodicals.

Gibbons cherishes the order and stability that her children and her writing provide. She has said that only after writing Ellen Foster could she really be herself and feel good about that. In How I Became a Writer she wrote:

My mother's death both freed me and marked me. … If she was still living, I would still be bound to my old home, and I know I would not have turned to literature and used it as I have.


I write novels to set order to what memories my mind has allowed me and to create something of lasting value in all those gaps I seem to have.


My life changed with the marriage and the birth [of my daughter], and the memory of my mother escorted me through the transition from a girl who loved literature better than her life to a woman who overcame her past and got at the business of living.


As she said to one interviewer: “Between good genes and a harsh environment, I think I turned out OK”; and so have her books, the first two already having sold over 25,000 copies each in hardback and over 40,000 each in paperback.


Most of the themes that one finds in Gibbons' works fit well what in other contexts she has said are her primary beliefs and concerns as a writer and as a person. She has definite ideas about what she believes she should try to do as a writer, what her concerns are, and how she hopes to present them to the reader. She writes about the “commonplace” things of the everyday lives of her characters in order to show the tensions, passions, opportunities, and effects on the human spirit of this aspect of living (as opposed to, but related to, the larger, more dramatic occurrences), both on the surface and below it. This larger aspect of the experiences of most people also has important value for understanding a character and what that character is, thinks, and does. One reviewer wrote that Gibbons “recounts mundane details of everyday life in such a compelling and innovative way that we are left both stunned and wiser.” She wants the reader to listen to and look at closely this particular richness and how it can lead to art and to fulfilling life, even in its many disguises.

Gibbons emphasizes the quiet, strong heroism of survivors, especially women, who persevere to bring order and peace out of chaos, good and joy out of difficulty, getting through the day, the years, a life, and making the best one can of it all, in spite of mistakes, catastrophes, misunderstandings, threats, injury, inadequate resources, sorrow, grief, disappointment, pain, death, disillusionment, and weariness. She finds hope in the strong, self-reliant individual coping with the quiet dramas and firm challenges of every day's journey and what that requires not only to survive but also to triumph, at least to the point of having inner peace, or even joy in the soul, from taking hold and doing what needs to be done, from bouncing back and going on. In this hope she reflects various aspects of her own experience and the admiration she has for her mother, and the epigraphs for her novels come from Emerson, the Bible, and a statement of belief in the validity of each person's own experience and voice.

She wants her characters to speak to us directly, for themselves, in truth and honesty, about life without illusions. Not only are her principal characters well drawn and memorable, but many of her lesser ones are vividly and well drawn, too, though they tend to pale in the shadows of her dominant first-person central characters. She explores experience in relation to family, in relation to interactions between people who should be close because of birth or because of choice, as through such relationships they try to effect order, stability, happiness, love, and validity for themselves and their existence. Gibbons explores the difficulty of knowing and shaping the self, particularly in relation to others and to one's past, both personal and collective. In doing this, she helps us see the universal in the particular and the magic amidst the mundane.

Gibbons finds it most pertinent to focus her concerns and interests through women characters and to explore the “phenomenon of being female” and the burdens of women, particularly as wives and mothers, and especially among less affluent women in the South. In doing this she has made good use of her memories of her own experiences and those of her family, as she attempts to give them order and meaning, to understand, control, shape, and accept. She has written in How I Became a Writer: “So I believe that it is under the incredible burden of memory that I write, and I cannot trade my memory, as much as I've often wanted to do so. My past is what it is. All that memory will allow me or any other writer to do is order it through language” (5).

With each of her three novels she has gone further back in time for settings, characters, and other material—into her own past and into the past that impinges on her past. Though the format differs, each book quickly establishes a chronological and developmental position at which the central characters have arrived and then, retrospectively and with a first-person point of view, explores how they arrived at that point, with almost no concern in the particular novel for what might come later than, or because of, its beginning point. It is likely that through research and her imagination she will continue to explore further and further back. In this regard, her fourth novel will really be part two of A Cure for Dreams, bringing that focus even further toward our time. One result of this movement back into the past is a lessening of intensity with each novel, resulting in more clarity and in changes of format and tone as she is forced into even more distance from her material than she has cultivated in her earlier work. Also, with each book she covers more time, as she continues to develop her portrayal of interactions between the old South and the more modern South and their ways and traditions.

Students of Southern writing often point to concerns with place (and land), family (and history), and religion (and sin and guilt) as primary themes or concerns in the body of Southern literature. Gibbons does little with the last, but she certainly emphasizes the other two. With each novel she has become more specific about both time and place as her literary imagination has been accepted and praised and as she has become more comfortable with being a writer and with using material from the locale she came from. Also, books that cover more time require more specificity, for both writer and reader. Most reviewers understood her first two novels to be set in the South, and North Carolina reviewers understood them to be in set in North Carolina; but others mistakenly have written of her settings as “deep South,” “backwoods,” or even Georgia, which is not as likely to happen again.

She has pointed out that all three novels are set in the same “landscape,” and some readers have noticed that some of the characters and places in one novel appear also elsewhere in her fiction, though we see them somewhat differently in each novel or story because of time differences, narrator differences, familial and geographical angle differences in focusing and vantage points, and different emphases—as in the works of William Faulkner, Wendell Berry, and others who write extensively about one particular locale.

One reviewer has suggested that Gibbons intends a series of interlocking novels. Certainly she is mining the rich artistic possibilities of human experience (history, mores, and language) in the rural Nash County, North Carolina, area in which she was raised and near which she lived even after moving into town; and she has found it a fertile and worthy locale for her explorations, which helps with the reality of her details (that ring true to one who knows that area). However, in much less-effective, less-important, and less-developed uses, she does deal briefly with western and coastal North Carolina in A Virtuous Woman, and with Kentucky and Ireland in A Cure for Dreams. She has said that in each of her novels she hopes to convey an accurate impression of a place and time and a respect for their traditions.

Language and voice are important components of Gibbons' art—important to her realistic intentions and her faithfulness to time and place, and important to the effectiveness and success of what she is trying to accomplish in the reader's experience. She wants the reader to sense the worth and uniqueness of the character through that person's distinctive voice, usually as she or he speaks directly to the reader, thus better enabling sharing of feeling. Like James Weldon Johnson, she has chosen to avoid dialect, but to strive for an awareness of idiom characteristic of and appropriate for that particular individual and time and place. This depends more on metaphors, word choice, and syntax than on pronunciation and grammar.

Some of her characters are not formally well educated, but are intelligent, highly aware of their world, and often wise; they are not caricatures, nor condescended to, but are presented with respect. She begins her conceptualization of a work with character and voice, not with plot or abstract ideas. She strives for a direct, concrete experience—not of exaggerated local color, but of regional realism and the universal therein. Through a focus on the area she knows best, she wants to emphasize for the reader not oddities or peculiarities or differences, but universal and eternal verities and some sense of their flavor in that time and place. She uses rural anecdotes and sayings because her characters would use them, to help them understand, control, and go on as these are adapted and applied to current circumstances. They are not clichés, but pregnant and versatile significations from a body of wise tradition and custom, which she respects, parts of a commonly held and available rich treasure trove of shared community experience. One reviewer wrote that she “makes the colloquial compelling.” In her writing, interior experience is more important than surface experience, and language is the important interpretive mechanism for bringing that to the reader, even concerning memories of surface experience.

Gibbons has shown herself to be unafraid of writing from inside characters of various ages, complexities, and backgrounds, male or female, and in varied circumstances and times, many of which she herself has not experienced—and in doing so well and interestingly, and with verisimilitude, insight, and understanding. She is good at using contrast, humor (which she feels is essential), and folk and popular culture, without their being inappropriately intrusive. Each of her novels has been less directly autobiographical than the one before it, and structurally more complex (though quite different in tone) as she has continued to adapt and experiment with a first-person point of view and layerings of structure in her attempt for directness of experience for the reader and the fullness of awareness that comes from multiple focuses and the depth, irony, perspective, counterpoint, and understanding made possible therein—which is how we know and experience life ourselves, not primarily in a linear way.

In Ellen Foster she shifts back and forth between past and present as Ellen speaks to us, using her good present to intersperse assurance, and also to provide relief from her persistently bad past, for author, character, and reader. In A Virtuous Woman she uses disjointed time as Jack speaks to us of his wife, Ruby, who is already dead, and in alternating chapters, as she approaches death, Ruby speaks to us of Jack. In A Cure for Dreams, the layering is more complex but not more difficult, even if one does experience less directness of speech because of the form and tone of the book. In it Gibbons has a contemporary (1989) woman briefly introduce and close the book, in between letting that woman's recently dead mother (1920–89) speak to us directly about her own self and even more so about her own mother (who in italics occasionally speaks for herself) and about her own grandmother and the impact of both of them on her, up to the 1942 birth of the introducer. (Ellen Foster had covered only a little over a year, focusing primarily on one character, and A Virtuous Woman over two and one-half decades, focusing primarily on two characters.)

Such forms require an alert and attentive reader, whose experience is enriched by them. Gibbons has not found the short story to be her genre, saying that she has good ideas for short stories but doesn't find it easy to develop them for that form. The short stories she has published are clearly inferior to her novels and were produced under pressure to do so, the one in The Quarterly a rearranged extracting from Ellen Foster and the other, “The Headache,” a more interesting but flat and somewhat inept story also set in Nash County.

Gibbons is serious about both the art and the craft of writing, though in How I Became a Writer she wrote: “I've never believed anyone can will the mind to create a thing of beauty. I like to think artistic creation starts in a more mysterious place, somewhere deep within, probably somewhere way far back in one's past” (5). In addition to writing fiction, she enjoys reading widely and analyzing and writing about literature. This is evident in her book reviews and in her essay on Katherine Anne Porter's Miranda stories (where she finds purpose in fiction in some ways not unlike her own purpose). She respects and enjoys, and has been influenced by, a variety of literature from across the ages, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty. Clearly, as a writer she also has been influenced by the teaching and editorial advice and encouragement of Louis Rubin; and she plans to follow Welty's example and remain with the South as both residence and primary subject.

She is not a writer who writes according to a rigid daily schedule; she does not force her writing. She writes first for herself and is not very self-conscious or audience-conscious while doing so. She writes with great economy and efficiency of style and with control of her material and no wasting of words, which results in novels that are not long, but are compact, yet fully realized; as one reviewer said, they are “all a novel should be and more than most ever are,” and as another put it, they are “stunning in their power and grace.” This economy of literary means is not a result of her having little to say, but of her having so much to say and with such belief and purpose that she does not wish to lead herself or the reader away from the book's main thrust in any way, resulting in significant accomplishment and no wasted effort for writer or reader, which is but one sign of her well-focused skill.


One of the obvious indications of how Gibbons' novels have been received is the awards and editions they have produced. For Ellen Foster she received the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. (The Academy's literary awards committee included Irving Howe, Donald Barthelme, James Dickey, Allen Ginsberg, Anthony Hecht, Elizabeth Spencer, and Anne Tyler.) Ellen Foster also received a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, and was chosen by the American Library Association as one of the Best Books for Young Adults in 1987. In 1988 Ellen Foster was fifth on France's best-seller list, and in 1989 A Virtuous Woman led the Atlanta Journal and Constitution's list of best-sellers in the Southeast. That same year Gibbons received from the National Endowment for the Arts a fellowship to aid her in writing a third novel, and for that work-in-progress she received in 1990 the first PEN/Revson Foundation Fiction Fellowship for a writer 35 years old or younger.

The paperback editions of the first two novels are in Random House's Vintage Contemporaries series (for Ellen Foster Random House outbid Dell, Viking Penguin, and Washington Square), and Paramount optioned the movie rights for Ellen Foster. Editions of both of the first two novels appeared in England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. A Virtuous Woman also was published in Denmark. Both of them were both reviewed and discussed with her widely in the United States and abroad, mostly enthusiastically and favorably, in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television, and led to various interviews in both print and nonprint media. (Anyone using the interviews should consult a chronological spread of them because of how her responses to some things changed over time.)

Many reviewers immediately compared 11-year-old Ellen Foster with some other child of fiction, usually also an orphan, created by a well-known writer—for example, Twain's Huck Finn, Cinderella, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, or J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. That this occurred so often might be seen as demeaning; but upon reading the full reviews, one realizes that this impulse was the result not of a sense of imitation on her part nor even of influence on her, but rather a recognition of Ellen's uniqueness and the book's quality, which let Gibbons seem deserving of consideration alongside such literary predecessors. Most reviewers emphasized Ellen's pluck, perseverance in the face of great and various difficulties, endearing straightforwardness, boldness, wit, spontaneity, resilience, practicality, wisdom, and tough stoicism, along with her coming to grips with friendship with her young black friend, Starletta, and the search for love and familial stability. Generally they found Ellen's voice (the matrix of this first-person narrative) to be matter-of-fact, detached, clear, simple, honest, controlled by the author, convincingly that of a child (even when talking of death, murder, eternity, race, etc.), and, while of course limited in its information, reliable. Unfortunately, several reviewers misinterpreted Ellen's use of “old” when speaking of herself and thought it referred to either or both chronological or experiential age instead of understanding Gibbons' intended use of it as a Southern term of acceptance and endearment (as in: “I like old John there”).

A number of reviewers mentioned how close Ellen Foster comes to melodrama, yet avoids it by focusing not so much on Ellen's multitude of difficulties themselves, but on her resourcefulness and her belief in herself as she deals with these difficulties. They found the result of Ellen's voice and its speaking directly to us, and of Gibbons' focusing, to be a book not sentimental, but human, humorous, and compassionate, with a believable survivor as its heroine. A number mentioned not only the skill of the characterization in the book, but also how this is enhanced by the book's moving back and forth between Ellen's past and present experience, giving the reader a meaningful counterpoint of awareness and perspective, and greatly assisting the possibility for humor even when things are quite grim and desperate—which is often. A few reviewers who also interviewed Gibbons began to see some parallel between her book and her own life, but they did not explore it very far and usually did not deal with it in their reviews, leaving it to comments within the published interviews.

Even before Ellen Foster was published, there was remarkable praise for it, which Algonquin understandably used in its publicity, advertising, and dust jacket for the book. Eudora Welty wrote: “What a marvelous writer she seems to be on almost every page. … A stunning new writer. … The life in it, the honesty of thought and eye and feeling and word!” Walker Percy wrote: “It's the real thing. Which is to say: a lovely, breathtaking, sometimes heart-wrenching first novel.” Alfred Kazin wrote: “A captivating, often hilarious mix of Victorian fairy tale and fresh American lingo … [with] the wickedest relatives in literature since King Lear … in a style primitive, saucy, and exhilarating.” Elizabeth Spencer wrote: “Original, compelling, and frighteningly real, the voice of Ellen Foster makes the reader know her story in her own terms. I was absorbed and moved. Kaye Gibbons is a new writer of great force. She knows how to speak to our hearts.” Most reviewers agreed that the author of Ellen Foster was one to watch, and in his review Jonathan Yardley wrote: “a work of considerable subtlety and intellectual sophistication. … a sly, funny book about a sly, funny girl. … Yet it is a mark of Kaye Gibbons' accomplishment that in no way is Ellen a moral or intellectual prodigy; she is simply a good little girl who makes her way out of trouble through the stubborn belief that life can be better than what it's been for her thus far. She is a terrific kid, and Ellen Foster is a terrific book.”

When Gibbons' second novel appeared, readers and reviewers were wondering if she had been able to sustain the level of accomplishment that had been so widely praised for Ellen Foster. Though A Virtuous Woman is in a number of ways quite different from Ellen Foster, most who reviewed it believed that she had produced another successful work and a worthy follower of her first book. The approaches of the reviewers of this second novel seem, however, more varied. Padgett Powell wrote of it in comparison and contrast with Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and The Wild Palms, emphasizing how “banged up” its characters are, calling it a complex novel, and emphasizing its structure and “balances and counterbalances, symmetries and their neat absence that shore up the book, creating a sturdier vessel. … there is also some ‘moral structure.’” He concluded that the novel is worthy of its interesting characters and its dangerous but somewhat ingenious alternation of first-person point of view chapters, with Ruby talking to us as she approaches death and Jack talking to us after she has died, and together giving us their past, while at first apart and then together. A French reviewer emphasized the book's honesty and integrity, dignity and humility, its themes both simple and deep, its treatment of the daily emotions of the heart. Marilyn Chandler approached the novel in response to its impressive explorations of what love and marriage are and can be, what the relations can be between good and well-intentioned man and woman, which she finds expressed in “a simplicity of language and childlike emotional honesty touching and even gripping” to the readers of today's world. She found a skillful sustaining of tension between the language of the characters and “the depth and magnitude of the feelings and questions they manage to evoke.”

Various reviewers praised the language of A Virtuous Woman, including its images and metaphors, its rural Southern cadences, and the matter-of-fact power in its storytelling, as its two principal characters speak directly to the reader. Several wrote of it as a deceptively simple and quiet book without much action, yet a deep book as it unsentimentally explores how love comes to be and grows, even with pain. An English reviewer said the book has the simplicity of good country music's focusing on the bare bones of life and traditional values, while a Kansas reviewer compared it to “good fiddle music,” and one in Florida wrote of Gibbons' lines as having “the tensile strength of wire; pluck one and it snaps right back.” Some reviewers found the ending of the book, with its noticeable change to omniscient point of view, flawed or weak; others found it strong, necessary, or helpful. Most found the novel's two major characters admirable and very real, persons who learn a lot about life, love, and sorrow, and whom the reader is glad to have met and to have learned from. One said that Gibbons clearly loves her characters for who they are. Often there was an emphasis on the compelling aspect of the narrative and a declaration that this novel, with its wisdom and art, is far above much of what now passes “as fine literature.” Various reviews spoke of grace, joy, decency, gentleness. A North Carolina reviewer called Gibbons an “exceptional writer who relies on the simplest words to convey the deepest emotions and conditions of the human spirit,” and Fredric Koeppel wrote: “The human spirit is a wonderful thing, and it's a rare author who can believably depict its simple grandeur and dignity. That ability is the chief attribute of Kaye Gibbons.”

The reviews of A Cure for Dreams appeared widely and were generally praising, but were not as many or usually as long as those for her first two novels, and as a whole they were more muted. Often reviewers tried to focus on this book in relation to her other two and to try to discern themes, concerns, and intentions in all three together, both comparing and contrasting, and making attempts to deal with what was now clearly a writer with a developing career, no longer just a talented beginner. Of course they focused on plot and characterization, and they also usually particularly noticed form and ambience and how these, in their estimations, were or were not more effective than those in her first two books. Although there were emphases on the three novels together, this book also was allowed integrity of its own. Lee Smith called it “lyrical and lovely, shot through with moments of recognition.” Valerie Sayers compared its structure to easygoing, meandering Sunday rides in the country, “willing to take detours if the landscape looks promising, willing to sit awhile if the vista is curious, willing to backtrack” if something had been missed. She also called attention to “a highly stylized and charming narrative voice, one that mixes 19th-century formality (and chapter headings) with 20th-century directness.” Josephine Humphreys wrote of Gibbons' “delicate hand,” which keeps the distinctive characteristics of her characters from seeming exaggerated. She said that the story's telling is “economical and quick,” with scenes and characters “drawn surely and sharply,” and it “sounds spoken, its language often stranger and stronger than literary language … [its] style both simple and baroque.” For her, “this is a novel of vision and grace. It shines.” Stacey D'Erasmo also called attention to a nineteenth-century aspect in Gibbons' novels, and found the three of them together to be “like a feminist Spoon River Anthology for mothers and daughters, full of methods for surviving, escaping, and outliving brutality.” Most reviewers called attention to the strong, dominant female central characters in this book and in its two predecessors, a focus on the “eternal feminine,” and some to the corresponding weakness of the male characters; but Jerry Mills also stated that it is a book for anyone who “values subtlety and craft and the nuances of feeling that language in skillful hands can evoke. And it is a book for anyone who wants to know what makes the South such fertile literary ground.” Sayers called attention to the language of the book also: “What a good ear Kaye Gibbons has … [taking us] down the back roads … [pointing] out what incredible lives are lived in those ordinary places.” Dannye Romine's Charlotte Observer review concluded: “Four years ago, we knew nothing of Kaye Gibbons. Then boom! This Nash County native swooped down upon us with fearsome talent … giving us music that, in Flaubert's words, will melt the stars.”


Works by Kaye Gibbons

“June Bug.” Carolina Quarterly 38 (Winter 1986): 55.

Ellen Foster. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1987.

“The Headache.” St. Andrews Review 32 (Spring/Summer 1987): 3–8.

“The Proof.” Quarterly 1 (Spring 1987): 60–72.

How I Became a Writer. My Mother, Literature, and a Life Split Neatly into Two Halves. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1988. Without the first five words of this title, the contents of this pamphlet also has appeared in the Leader (November 10, 1988): 22–27; and in The Writer on Her Work, Volume II: New Essays in New Territory, ed. Janet Sternburg, New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

“Planes of Language and Time: The Surface of the Miranda Stories.” Kenyon Review n.s. 10 (Winter 1988): 74–79.

“A Nash County Girl's Tribute.” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (November 5, 1989): 5D.

A Virtuous Woman. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1989.

Family Life. Rocky Mount, N.C.: North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1990. Three chapters from A Cure for Dreams. “To Be Published by Algonquin Books.” Limited to 500 numbered and signed copies.

A Cure for Dreams. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1991.

Studies of Kaye Gibbons

Bell, Mae Woods. “Writing Is Part of Life for Kaye Gibbons.” Rocky Mount (N.C.) Telegram (April 26, 1987): 41.

Brinson, Linda. “It's OK: Novelist Writes on after a Difficult Revelation.” Winston-Salem Journal (June 18, 1989): H10.

Chandler, Marilyn. “Limited Partnership” (Rev. of A Virtuous Woman). Women's Review of Books 6 (July 1989): 21.

D'Erasmo, Stacey. Rev. of A Cure for Dreams.Voice Literary Supplement (April 1991): 5.

Earle, Ralph. “Vices and Virtues” (Rev. of A Virtuous Woman). Spectator (Raleigh, N.C.) (April 27, 1989): 25.

Fleischer, Leonore. “Is It Art Yet?” Publishers Weekly (May 8, 1987): 34.

Hoffman, Alice. “Shopping for a New Family” (Rev. of Ellen Foster). New York Times Book Review (May 31, 1987): 13.

Humphreys, Josephine. “Within Marriage, A Secret Life,” (Rev. of A Cure for Dreams). Los Angeles Times Book Review (May 19, 1991): 13.

Johnson, Maria C. “Speaking from Experience: At 29, Writer Has Lived Many of Life's Stories.” Greensboro News and Record (August 31, 1989): B1-B2.

“Kaye Gibbons,” 46–50 in Contemporary Literary Yearbook, 1987 vol. 50. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.

“Kaye Gibbons.” Television interview by William Friday on North Carolina People, University of North Carolina Center for Public Television (July 24, 1989).

Koeppel, Fredric. “Household Labels Rile New Novelist Gibbons.” Commercial Appeal (Memphis) (July 8, 1990): G1—G2.

———. “Novels Feature Southern Setting, Characters without Caricatures” (Rev. of Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman). Commercial Appeal (Memphis) (July 8, 1990): G4.

Manuel, John. “Clear Vision: Raleigh Novelist Discusses Fame, Fortune and Her Forthcoming Book.” Spectator (Raleigh, N.C.) (July 19, 1990): 5–6.

Mills, Jerry Leath. “Kaye Gibbons: ‘The Eternal Feminine’ in Fiction” (Rev. of A Cure for Dreams). News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (March 10, 1991): 5J.

Powell, Padgett. “As Ruby Lay Dying” (Rev. of A Virtuous Woman). New York Times Book Review (April 30, 1989): 12–13.

Romine, Dannye. “Literature Liberates: Raleigh's Kaye Gibbons Finds Freedom, Affirmation in 1st Novel.” Charlotte Observer (April 26, 1987): 1F, 13F.

Rosenheim, Andrew. “Voices of the New South” (Rev. of Ellen Foster). Times Literary Supplement (London) (November 25, 1988): 1306.

Sayers, Valerie. “Back Roads, Strong Women” (Rev. of A Cure for Dreams). Washington Post (April 8, 1991): C3.

Sill, Melanie. “This Perfect Story Has a Happy Ending.” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (April 27, 1987): 8A-9A.

Slater, Joyce. “A Virtuous Woman Grabs Reader from Start” (Rev. of A Virtuous Woman). Atlanta Journal-Constitution (May 28, 1989): N8.

Tyler, Phyllis. “Kaye Gibbons: ‘To Be a Writer You Have to Eat Literature.’” Independent (Durham, N.C.) (April 23, 1987): 24–25.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Child of Adversity: A Young Heroine Finds Happiness Overcoming Prejudice” (Rev. of Ellen Foster). Washington Post (April 22, 1987): C2.

Kaye Gibbons with Bob Summer (interview date 8 February 1993)

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SOURCE: “Kaye Gibbons,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 6, February 8, 1993, pp. 60-1.

[In the following interview, Summer and Gibbons discuss Gibbons's change of publishers and the development of her fourth novel, Charms for the Easy Life.]

In the decade during which she published her first three novels, Kaye Gibbons won critical acclaim, a legion of readers and literary prizes. Yet when she approached her fourth novel, the 32-year-old writer momentarily lost her voice. Gibbons had recently weathered some difficult times: a reluctant but pragmatic move to Putnam from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, the publisher of Ellen Foster,A Virtuous Woman and A Cure for Dreams; a divorce; a brief move from North Carolina to California; and a return to Raleigh, N.C.

With the help of Putnam editor Faith Sale, however, Gibbons found her voice again. Late last year she concluded the project that had first daunted her and rushed the last manuscript pages to Putnam. The novel, which PW called “a touching picture of female bonding and solidarity” (Fiction Forecasts, Jan. 11), will be published next month as Charms for the Easy Life.

All of Gibbons's novels to date concern Southern women who shoulder the burdens of their ordinary lives with extraordinary courage. Much of the uncanny wisdom these heroines display has grown out of Gibbons's own philosophy of life and approach to her craft. “Nobody ever told me it was going to be easy,” she says about the writing life. “If I weren't a writer, I'd probably be a lawyer or an architect. I wouldn't want to do anything easy, and I chose to be a writer.” Then, slipping into the self-mocking humor that softens her frank, beyond-her-years maturity, she adds, “Maybe somebody should give me a charm for the easy life.”

Between finishing Charms, hunting for a larger house, and getting organized to leave her three young daughters (eight, five and three years old) next month for a 20-city promotional tour, Gibbons has not found much time to relax. She says her home is “kind of a zoo,” and suggests lunch with PW at a Raleigh restaurant with her significant other, Frank Ward, continuing afterward in a conference room at Maupin, Taylor, Ellis and Adams, the law firm in which Ward is a partner (and Armistead Maupin's father a senior partner). “Frank knows more about my books than I do,” she says airily, “so if you have any deep questions, ask him.”

Speaking with an often startling directness, Gibbons confesses that she is always at a loss when she gets inquiries about the symbolism in her novels. “I worked hard to put into the book everything a reader needs to know,” Gibbons says. “The deadliest question to ask me is what this novel is about. All I can say is that it's about three women—a grandmother, mother and daughter—and what they give to and take from each other.”

Some of her resistance to discussing the book's background comes from her experiences with her first novel, Ellen Foster. That stark and affecting story is brought to vivid life by the voice of a young country girl upon whom tragic circumstances force an uncanny wisdom. Some interviewers, noting that Gibbons herself was born and raised in rural Nash County, asked about similarities between Ellen and the author. “Ellen Foster is emotionally autobiographical,” Gibbons now confirms without qualms. “My mother did commit suicide when I was 10”—as does Ellen's mother in the book—and her father, a tobacco farmer, “really did drink himself to death. But I didn't go to live with my grandmother, as Ellen does, although I did live with a couple of aunts before moving in with my older brother, which was fortunate for me. But the years between 10 and 13 were pretty hard,” she says, with typical understatement.

Still, she insists, Ellen Foster was not written to provide “an emotional catharsis, but as an artistic exercise.” Gibbons—who grew up an avid reader, thanks to a local library, since there were few books at home other than a Bible and the World Book Encyclopedia—began the novel in 1985 when she was taking a course taught by Louis Rubin at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (She had attended North Carolina State University on a scholarship, with plans to become a teacher, then switched to U.N.C. She never “quite completed” requirements for a degree from either school, however.)

During her studies, Gibbons had become fascinated by the work of James Weldon Johnson, a turn-of-the-century African American poet. “He seemed to me to be the first poet in the South—not the first writer, since Twain had already done it—to make art out of everyday language. Inspired by him, I wanted to see if I could have a child use her voice to talk about life, death, art, eternity—big things from a little person.”

She began writing a poem from the viewpoint of the black girl who becomes Ellen's best friend, but the story gradually metamorphosed into a novel. She sensed that finishing the book marked a turning point in her life. “I knew in a spiritual, inward way that it was going to make a difference to me and my family, although I didn't know what that would be.” Rubin, who had founded Algonquin two years earlier, read the book and asked to publish it. “Then he asked several of his fellow writers, people like Miss Welty, Walker Percy and Elizabeth Spencer, to read it. I'll always be grateful to him.”

Despite that validation, Gibbons had so little self-confidence that she faced post-publication interviews “terrified that I would be found out” as a literary pretender. Though she claimed the book was “a complete fabrication,” the fact that her mother had died when she was a child led people to focus on the issue of its autobiographical elements. Gibbons began “making up ailments she could have died from” rather than admit the parallels to her own life. “I had read enough Thomas Wolfe to know what would happen if that occurred. I didn't want the publicity hook to be my miserable childhood.”

But honesty finally surfaced when she sat down to talk with Atlanta Journal-Constitution book editor Don O'Briant, whom she describes as “a wonderful gentleman. He asked me how much Ellen Foster resembled me. I had intended to lie, but I couldn't; I decided then and there to tell the truth. Besides, I was pretty much out of made-up ways my mother could have died.”

Interview difficulties didn't end there, however. When she was touring for the Vintage paperback edition of A Virtuous Woman—in which the male character's bravado renders him insensitive to his late wife's devotion—“without fail, I was asked why I hate men. I hope that, with Charms, the dogs will be called off on the matter of my fictional male characters,” Gibbons says, referring to the sympathetic characterization, in Charms, of Tom Hawkings, whom she calls “a fully drawn, compassionate, good-looking and romantic man.”

She insists, however, that Hawkings was not modeled on Ward, the key man in her life now. Nor did Hawkings emerge until the novel was well under way. Although Gibbons had planned to continue the story of the black midwife introduced in A Cure for Dreams, early drafts were “flat.” Gradually it dawned on her that she needn't commit herself to a sequel. “Perhaps I watched Ghostbusters II,” speculates Gibbons, an avid movie fan who says she learns about structuring fiction from films. “Something told me to rewrite the book and make it stand on its own.”

She agrees with those who think writing is a mysterious process. “As a writer, it's my job to come up with 300 pages or so every two years. Each time I begin, I know it's going to happen, but I'm scared it won't. It's working with that element of fear that keeps a book going.” This remains true even though her work to date has received many rewards and much recognition. Ellen Foster was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation; A Virtuous Woman earned her an NEA fellowship; A Cure for Dreams garnered the PEN/Revson Foundation Fellowship and the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize; and Gibbons was a breakfast speaker at the 1991 ABA, with Jeffrey Archer and Alice Walker. Despite these honors, Gibbons claims that she approaches each book with “a fear of looking over an abyss and knowing I have to jump.”

In the case of Charms, Gibbons made her leap after “hearing” the voice of indomitable Charlie Kate. She felt it obvious that the midwife should be white, not black, as originally conceived. “She was just wild, and I've felt feisty ever since she came into my life. I really liked the pithy way she spoke, although I had to struggle to control her.” To prevent the strong character from taking over, Gibbons chose another character for the first-person narrator, a device she says she “can't seem to get away from.”

Gibbons was determined to make Charlie Kate intellectually up-to-date, although her origins were simple and rural. “Now, there's a difference between being intellectually sophisticated and educated in a sophisticated manner,” the novelist argues. “I wanted her to possess all the knowledge of a Yale graduate, but she could not have gone to Yale. So I had her educate herself. I gave her a subscription to the Saturday Review of Literature, which someone like her would have read in the '40s, and had her read James Thurber in the New Yorker. I wanted her medically sophisticated, so I gave her a subscription to the New England Journal of Medicine. And I made her an admirer of Winston Churchill; they would have gotten along famously.”

Gabriel García Márquez figured in Gibbons's rewrite. “The first draft was top-heavy with period detail, since I didn't know how to incorporate historical information into a novel. But rereading A Hundred Years of Solitude taught me how to do it.”

Other books that influenced Gibbons were The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (Duke University Press), where she found the “magical” rabbit's foot tale from which she chose Charms's title. She also digested 53 books about the WW II period. “Maybe 10 of those were top-down histories, like John Keegan's The Second World War. Then I went to ‘the people’ and let them tell me history from the bottom up. That's a lot more fun. I like to watch historical events trickle down.” She credits oral histories, including Studs Terkel's The Good War and the WPA's Depression-era interviews, as “primary sources of information.”

But the rewrite was still troublesome. And when she thought the novel was finally finished, “I found I had killed off the wrong people! I called Bob Furnam [the Raleigh doctor who gave medical guidance for Charms], and he worked backward with me on the death that had to occur in the last 30 pages.”

Faith Sale both steadied Charms and helped bring it to life. Gibbons believed that “she would be a firm hand to guide me,” as did Liz Darhansoff, the agent who has been “a rudder” to Gibbons since Ellen Foster. “I came to Faith through Amy Tan, whose Joy Luck Club she edited. She was at the forefront of my thinking when I decided to leave Algonquin.” The departure, she stresses, was entirely without acrimony.

“Faith understood the first 30 or 40 pages of Charms intimately, and she could see its possibilities,” Gibbons says, but the editing process was “arduous. We went at it unrelentingly, determined to make it the best it could be. I think that two lesser women would have shot themselves—and/or each other—during the editing of this book.”

Gibbons stresses that the novel honed by that writer/editor partnership is no more “commercial” for being published by a large trade house than were her previous works. “I wondered while I was writing if there would be people who would flip through the book to see if I had put sex into it, or a car chase—anything that smacks of commercialism. But they won't find anything like that. Maybe it's more opened up than my previous books, but that could reflect my getting older and having more life experiences, having read Márquez and getting the courage to expand, or being a single mother who has a better relationship with my children. But really, if the book appeals to a wider audience, it's because the story is more appealing.”

Further Reading

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Bellante, Carl and John. “Janowitz and Gibbons: Feminist Fatales.” Bloomsbury Review 13 (May, 1993) 13.

The Bellantes assert that Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams and Tama Janowitz's The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group both fall short of their artistic aims.

Dodd, Susan. “A Sentimental Education.” Washington Post Book World 28 (12 July 1998): 9.

Dodd praises the fairy-tale aspects of Gibbons's On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon.

Wolcott, James. “Crazy for You.” New Yorker 71 (21 August 1995): 115-16.

Wolcott discusses the difficulty Gibbons had in writing Sights Unseen, which needed seven rewrites to complete the work.

Additional coverage of Gibbons's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 34; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 151; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 75; Contemporary Southern Writers; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; Something About the Author, Vol. 117; and Literature Resource Center.

Judith Beth Cohen (review date October 1993)

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SOURCE: “Daughters of the South,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, October, 1993, p. 24.

[In the following review, Cohen discusses the Southern women in Gibbons's Charms for the Easy Life, Pam Durban's The Laughing Place, and Elizabeth Berg's Durable Goods.]

Sensitive daughters and powerful parents are the focus of these three recent Southern novels. Charlie Kate, part folk-healer, part-scientist, the North Carolina grandmother in Kaye Gibbons' fourth novel, Charms for the Easy Life, defies labels as she rises off the page. Louise Vess, the mother in Pam Durban's first novel, The Laughing Place, is a formidable figure with upper-class aspirations and stiff upper lip, thwarted by the small universe of Timmons, South Carolina. In Durable Goods, Elizabeth Berg's first novel, set on a Texas military base, it's an abusive father who looms large. Though all three daughter-narrators are both blessed and cursed by these powerful parent figures, Gibbons' medic/grandmother Charlie Kate might well become the most memorable older woman in twentieth-century literature.

In a deadpan, matter-of-fact voice, Gibbons' narrator Margaret invites us to enter Pasquotank County, where Charlie Kate becomes a legend after saving a black man from a lynching. From the grateful survivor, she receives an “easy life charm … the hindfoot of a white graveyard rabbit caught at midnight, under the full moon, by a cross-eyed Negro woman who had been married seven times.” In the pre-World War Two countryside around Raleigh, Charlie Kate's deeds are both practical and magical: she provides sex education for every child, sends a deserving boy to medical school, frees a woman's hand from a wringer, forces a bumbling doctor to retire, and heals the hermit son of a witch and a warlock. She's also “the first woman anybody knew with the courage not only to possess a toilet but to use it.” With this perfect balance of the outrageous and the mundane, Gibbons suspends our disbelief and we accept Charlie Kate's remarkable gifts.

When her husband doesn't show up for supper, Charlie Kate wastes no time; she breaks his dishes, yelling “To hell with him!” Her daughter Sophia claims she didn't have time to miss her father, for she “was highly involved in the life of the second grade.” Sophia does learn that men will leave you: when her own cad of a husband cheats on her, she begs her mother to “do something,” but Charlie Kate won't cross the line from natural medicine to black magic. Unemotionally, Sophia's daughter Margaret describes her own father's early death: “One evening my mother called God to the house and he came.”

There's no mourning on Margaret's part, for she knows they'll have a better time without him, and indeed they do. Charlie Kate—who wouldn't cross their threshold while he lived—moves in, and daughter, mother and grandmother form an enduring female household as the world explodes into war.

Literature, medicine and the progress of the war are what matter to them. Though they eat like bachelors, they manage so well that soaking blood from their laundry garments is their toughest challenge. Margaret falls asleep listening to Charlie Kate reading aloud from medical journals. She becomes “fascinated with her mind, enamoured of her muscular soul.” When debates break out about men or literature (what did become, they wonder, of the disappearing narrator in Madame Bovary?), Margaret sides with her grandmother. She's so attached to their household that, contrary to Sophia's wishes, she puts college off, confident that reading and learning happen best inside their threesome.

Gibbons challenges our common operating assumptions: here children do not suffer when fathers disappear, neither do men offer solace and completion. She imagines a feminist alternative to the patriarchal myth of man as rescuer or savior. Her characters don't accept the reality they are given, they alter it. Just as Charlie Kate revises the letters wounded soldiers dictate to Margaret, Gibbons uses her delightful wit to rewrite the dominant narrative about rural Southern women. Though Margaret knows her grandmother would have populated the world entirely with women just like herself, men are not absent from these lives. With Charlie Kate's help, Sophia wins her married lover, and Margaret finds her own beau; but these couplings are reluctantly made, as if Gibbons' women know their collective power is bound to be diluted when they leave the female circle.

Annie Vess in The Laughing Place longs for a new language with which to speak to her mother, yet it is separation rather than bonding that marks this narrative. Recently widowed herself, Annie returns to tradition-bound Timmons, South Carolina, after her father's sudden death. She sees a world of “taboos of color, line and proportion … arcane as that of an ancient religion … to which women must conform.” Durban's realistic prose is slow-moving and reflective, her imagery characterized by opposites: low country/high country, private/public, dark/light. The grieving mother and daughter live as “spies in each others' lives, leaving messages in a code to which neither … held the key.” Gradually Annie uncovers her father's sexual betrayal, grows up and moves beyond her mother's crushing orbit. Her accomplice is Legree Black, a self-proclaimed redneck-naturalist, a sort of primeval man with a visionary gift. Annie falls in love with this sometime photographer who had once “let in the light and made a picture of [her] father's darkness.”

Durban is a sharp chronicler of the contemporary Southern landscape, where crass schemes for selling condos to wealthy retirees coexist with yearly ceremonies for the Confederate dead. Annie understands her mother: she “should have been a diplomat, architect, designer of monumental buildings,” and the confines of marriage made her “vehement and fierce.” When Mrs. Vess finds solace in born-again Christianity, Annie wryly rejects her Jesus as another romance novel hero, yet her own answer is no less conventional.

Ultimately Durban's tale is one more gloss on the oedipal myth: a daughter searches for a man to replace her father. Though Annie claims she “could never again disappear or dissolve into another,” it is Legree, “the rescuer of turtles blinded by artificial light,” who helps her see the truth about her idealized marriage and her dead father.

Katie, the twelve-year-old narrator of Elizabeth Berg's slim novel Durable Goods, gets her period and learns she is to relocate once again. Her widowed father, a military officer, follows protocol precisely but can't control his own rage. “I do not believe the army is a good idea for people with regular human hearts,” is Katie's diagnosis.

Berg takes us inside Katie's experiences as they unfold—we're with her as she disappears under her bed to hide from her father's blows; we listen as she holds conversations with her dead mother or watches her sister being beaten. “Remember,” she asks her sister later on, “when we used to pull down our pants to look at our butts in the mirror to see his handprints, see whose was darker?” Remarkably, she's able to see her father's pain as well, how “he can only go so far in a good direction. Then something happens. He is all broken apart.”

Berg has enriched our literature by giving us a young girl able to transcend abuse, and she helps us understand the flawed father as well as his victims. Durable Goods can be compared to Kaye Gibbons' debut novel, Ellen Foster (1987). Like Katie, eleven-year-old Ellen loses her mother and is abused by both her father and grandmother, yet she retains her spirit and wit, outsmarting the therapist assigned to her. Ellen managed to find herself a new mama and a new name. But comfort wasn't enough for her; she insisted upon justice, bringing her black girlfriend home, amazed that “all this time I thought I had the hardest row to hoe.”

Like Charms for the Easy Life,Ellen Foster includes dimensions of class and color that reveal a whole social structure. Gibbons' novels encompass more than the private lives Durban and Berg depict so well. She goes beyond predictable realism to give us a deeper imaginative truth in her subversive vision of women's possibilities. The mythic grandmother Charlie Kate, her finest achievement thus far, allows us to dream in a new vocabulary.

Gale Harris (essay date Winter 1993/1994)

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SOURCE: “Beyond the Scarlett Image: Women Writing about the South,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993/1994, pp. 16-8.

[In the following essay, Harris asserts that the heroines of several contemporary Southern novels, including Gibbons's Charms for the Easy Life, go beyond the image of Scarlett O'Hara in portraying life for women in the South.]

Whether presented in the context of tragic, humorous, or almost mythic circumstances, the southern women portrayed in five recent works do more than rebuild their lives and nurture their offspring. They create an environment in which truth can come to light, intimacy can be undertaken and maintained, and hope can arise from disillusionment and betrayal. Although Scarlett's last words may ring false to some observers of human nature, the women in the books reviewed here clearly have found diverse but unmistakable paths to more promising tomorrows.

Like Scarlett, Georgie in Louise Shivers's A Whistling Woman, is a survivor of the Civil War. She always has assumed that her father died like so many others in that conflict. Georgie is only eight when, in 1867, her mother, Chaney, finds work on a virtually abandoned plantation. When she is 14, Georgie is lured into a confused and passionate affair that leaves her pregnant and abandoned by the son of the plantation's owner. Chaney forbids Georgie to name the son of “that fine family” as the child's father. Instead, Chaney pretends she is pregnant and raises Wilkes as if he were her own child. In time, Chaney begins to deny the true circumstances of Wilkes's birth even to his own mother.

Although Georgie's later, happy marriage to another man is a “honey cure,” she is still plagued by nightmares that have haunted her since childhood, and she keeps waiting for something to pounce. Eventually, Georgie comes to terms with the deception surrounding Wilkes's birth and learns the terrible secret of her father's death and the source of her nightmares. By then, she has forged her own alternative to Chaney's warning that “a whistling woman and a crowing hen is no good either to gods or men.” Georgie concludes that this adage means more than that men want women to be quiet. She believes that “most women know so much that they never tell, know so many secret things, which sometimes they're just making a little, slow, low whistling sound of warning. Don't mess with a whistling woman.”

Shivers grew up in the tobacco country of eastern North Carolina, and her novel bears the authentic voices of rural women in that region. Georgie's narrative reflects the simplicity of life and daily contact with elemental things that add richness and profundity to the lives of ordinary but gifted women.

When Georgie feels she is ready to slap her husband's face “just to break the routine,” she rises early and walks out in the backyard “where I could have the air to breathe myself, just the air without anybody else breathing it.” Her last images are of mother and daughter husking peas and watching the dried hulls being taken by a fall wind, blown “like ghosts of fireflies down the street of the town.” Shivers could not have added a single page to this slim novel that could have conveyed more completely the quiet triumph of a woman who attains her powers the moment she learns what stories to tell and what secrets to keep.

Kaye Gibbons's Charms for the Easy Life is another deceptively simple novel that presents three generations of whistling women. Like Shivers's story, it is set in rural North Carolina. Already a midwife at the age of 20, Clarissa—or Charlie—Kate marries the ferryman who has transported her across the river to visit her patients. As Charlie's talents, confidence, and practice increase, her husband grows more frustrated with his life and leaves “the way sad men leave: he did not come home from work.” With no friends or acquaintances other than her patients, Charlie and her daughter, Sophia, are too busy and involved in life to miss him.

Sophia makes an equally unfortunate choice for a husband, but her daughter and narrator of the story, Margaret, completes the trio, which creates a new order in which women are the intrepid doers, the smart financial investors, and the savvy judges of character. The bond among these women as well as the individual strengths they have developed enable Sophia and Margaret to forge new relationships and separate lives when promising opportunities arise.

In Charlie Kate, Gibbons has created a mythic persona that rivals other monolithic heroes such as Paul Bunyan. Charlie's campaigns for social reform are always successful; her interventions in the personal lives of her patients are nearly always supremely gratifying; and her authority, when questioned, is always upheld to the extreme regret of the skeptics. Contemplating Charlie's eventual death, Margaret realizes “how intimidating [her] grandmother would be to all those trillions of dead people who'd never met her.”

Margaret's narrative reinforces the legend by interweaving the known facts of Charlie's life with tales that her granddaughter has had to “half invent by dream.” It is indicative of Gibbon's invisible mastery of the storytelling form as well as the truth of her vision that one tall tale only whets the appetite for another. Together these anecdotes create a detailed and believable portrait of three strong and loving women whose lives are enriched by what they give. Like all viable myths, Gibbons's story of Charlie Kate and her descendants imparts hope and guidance for an easy life, “depending on your definition of easy.”

Resourceful, indomitable women apparently abound in south Georgia, where Bailey White lives with her mother. Mama Makes Up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living opens with White's warning that when her mother “starts to move across a room, people pay attention. You can never be sure she's not going to grab you by the top of the head to steady herself. And she's pretty free with that walking stick, too.” Thus are we introduced to Mama, who lets ornithologists use her daughter's fevered body to hatch wild turkey eggs, camps on the edge of a meadow when she gets tired of her family's demands, and serves feasts made from fresh road kill. Mama bathes on the back porch even in the dead of winter and sleeps there through a hurricane that destroys the roof of her niece's house.

White's Aunt Belle is fond of junkets in search of ferry boats, thunderstorms, and unexplained mysteries. She also tames wild alligators and teaches them to bellow on command. Bailey is no slouch herself, braving nightmares and oversized gear to become a volunteer fireperson, resourcefully maintaining an antique used car, and wrestling an old Underwood typewriter from an attic in Virginia to her mother's kitchen table, where Mama is writing her memoirs.

If Mama's recollections are anything like her daughter's, they will be full of eccentrics who are intent on their idiosyncratic purposes and oblivious to the stares and opinions that deter most of us. White balances these quixotic personalities with her own sensitivity and reflections on the heart beneath the quirks. Although the urge to impart a moral or revelation in every brief story leads to forced endings, White's craftsmanship and insight meld beautifully in several pieces. In one, she is appalled to find herself reading to her pupils a classic children's book that she realizes extols the virtue of war. Another story describes how she and a cousin overcome their initial disinterest to explore each other's hobbies, a process that leads to a brief, aromatic unity.

Not all relationships between generations of southern women are as harmonious as Charlie Kate's or Bailey White's families. But even the most troubled connections have a power that can transform lives. In Pam Durban's The Laughing Place, a mother and daughter find different and often conflicting ways to cope with a man's betrayal of his family. The mother, who tolerated her husband's deceit, swiftly expunges his belongings from their house after his death. His daughter, Annie, also recently widowed, discovers her father's secret life only after she returns home for his funeral.

As Annie tries to cope with her father's legacy of broken promises and shattered loyalties, her disillusionment threatens to engulf her remaining relationships. She breaks with her new lover, Legree Black, because she is afraid she can no longer care deeply enough. Annie's sharpest battles are reserved for her mother, whom she can no longer believe possesses “a set of special senses tuned forever to the world and to [her] children, made for making one known to the other.” Although her mother's religious conversion increases this sense of loss, Annie eventually sees “with what will and what grief [her mother] has claimed her life.” Her mother's triumph and her own renewed closeness with Legree help Annie to forgive the people she loves and to cherish her life, “so broken and so full of promise,” above any paradise or the “beauty of anyone's dreams.”

Durban's first novel surpasses the promise of her previous work of short stories, All Set About With Fever Trees. The almost mystical insights that characterized her stories illuminate nearly every page of The Laughing Place. The women in her novel overcome loss, disillusionment, and anger not merely through action and an instinct for survival. They also recognize and eventually embrace inner forces that endlessly seek to grow and change, to open and allow for more of life's possibilities, and to “hold all darkness and still remain a harvest.” Durban shows us the strength, intelligence, and awareness that allow two women to “live on this earth as though [they] belong here.”

In Christina Baker Kline's Sweet Water, the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter leads to revelation and forgiveness. Cassie Simon lost her mother at the age of three and never knew the grandfather who died and left her his house in Sweetwater, Tennessee. When she moves from New York to the town where she was born, Cassie begins to hear and tries to unravel stories about the accident that killed her mother and the possibly related drowning of her grandmother's closest friend.

Cassie senses the hostility in her grandmother but does not understand that she wants something still hidden in the inherited house. When the older woman's desperate efforts to recover her secrets lead to a confrontation with her granddaughter, Cassie helps her family face the past and begin a healing process.

Kline unfolds the secrets of Sweetwater in alternating accounts by Cassie and her grandmother, Clyde. Cassie's passages are longer and more expository, but despite descriptions of her artistic growth and a passionate affair, they fail to provoke much interest in their narrator. Clyde's stories, although much briefer, are more revealing and constitute the true heart and voice of the novel. Clyde is a complex character whose initial submission to her unfaithful husband is transformed into a bitter dominance that not even death can relieve. The unquenchable taste for revenge, however, is not the result of an inherent desire for supremacy but rather the heart's effort to control pain that it can neither tolerate nor understand. Although Kline's development of Cassie lacks definition, her portrait of Clyde brims with the fire, relentlessness, and fallibility we find in the most memorable southern women.

What distinguishes these new southern women from their predecessor, Scarlett O'Hara? Evenly matched in gumption and in the will to survive, the new heroines surpass the old in an awareness that may be succinctly called heart. Having heart is not merely possessing courage, tenacity, or the belief that things will be better tomorrow. Having heart is deliberately probing one's fate and misfortune for signs of grace, for glimpses that encourage one to embrace rather than reject life. Taking heart can mean that a woman rejects submission and carves her own path in the world. It also can mean that she finds and links with what Durban calls other messengers, “passing in and out, over and through each other's days and nights, carrying news from one place to another.” Women writing about the South today are bearing heartening messages: life may not always be easy, but it can sustain the dream as well as reality, the flight as well as the journey taken step by step.

Tonita Branan (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: “Women and ‘The Gift for Gab’: Revisionary Strategies in A Cure for Dreams,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Branan describes how language empowers the women in Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams.]

Several months before her third novel appeared, Kaye Gibbons voiced anxiety over “the recent dispersal and watering down of language, the lost language in the South” (Wallace 8). With her (then) forthcoming work, A Cure for Dreams, she intended to “take the language back to a very pure time … the Depression,” noting that “the hardest part of writing … has been trying to create a whole community with everything intact” (8, 9). Create a community Gibbons does—a community of talkers in Dreams, and not of least importance, a community whose talk is largely represented through and controlled by women. The book's principal narrators, Lottie Davies, the matriarch, her daughter, Betty Davies Randolph, and Betty's daughter, Marjorie Polly Randolph, share the telling of their familial history, which ranges from Ireland's Great Potato Famine to December 15, 1989, and which extends also to the experiences of friends in the Davies' circle. Chronicling the incessant, overlapping conversations of these three generations of females who live on Milk Farm Road, an anonymous farming borough in North Carolina, A Cure for Dreams projects women who talk to each other, talk about each other, gloss old phrases, name their children, weave fictitious accounts of “what really happened,” write poems, critique men's letters, and read one another's bodies.

Of the three narrators, Lottie in particular uses words time and again to effect communal change: through elision she outsmarts Deputy Carroll in an unsolved murder case, by subverting racist labels she includes her black friend, Polly, at white folks' gatherings, and through tacit euphemism she “explained betting to women so they could have a little thrill on a Saturday afternoon” (64). Far from lingering in marginal spaces or shutting up when men speak, Lottie turns tricks with her talk to get things done, a feature also notably exemplified in her friend, Sade Duplin, the figure through whom Gibbons modifies Susan Glaspell's 1917 short story, “A Jury of Her Peers.” A Cure for Dreams replaces Glaspell's crazy, speechless, victimized Minnie Wright with Sade, a woman equally victimized, but one who maintains her wits and agile tongue even as she strikes back against a brutal husband. Simply put, Lottie Davies and Sadie Duplin contradict feminist theories which cast language as a pernicious, ultra-patriarchal mechanism that, at best, renders women aphasic and, at worst, strips them of their sanity.1 Since Lottie and Sadie talk with intent and talk well, any discussion of A Cure for Dreams must attend to the productive relation Kaye Gibbons establishes between female characters and discourse.

In Honey-Mad Women Patricia Yaeger departs from usual feminist positions by downplaying women's speechlessness, addressing instead the ways female writers have created gaps in male discourse to insert meanings and revisions distinctly feminine. Opting for Hannah Arendt's philosophy of the “infinitely improbable” in language instead of Foucault's notion that the word/logos fundamentally restrains, Yaeger asserts:

Speech has [the] capacity to initiate, to interrupt and start things anew because speech is more than a function of the social order: the word can always be said or seized differently, can operate as a form of action. … To be able to act is to enter the flux and influence its direction.


Yaeger further argues that females possess both the aptitude and the tools to “rewrite [our] culture” and identifies “our need, as women, to invent language games that challenge and change linguistic codes” (29, 15). Most importantly, her theory of emancipatory strategies offers means for analyzing Lottie Davies's oral tactics in A Cure for Dreams. In terms of Yaeger's concepts and classifications, Lottie “wrench[es] … syntactic patterns” “into new shapes” and recognizes the double-life of speech by allowing her own and others' words more than one meaning (98, 103). Quintessentially “honey-mad”—a woman who “appropriates the language ‘racked up’ in her own body” and dares to shout—Gibbons's Lottie Davies exemplifies the type of female artist whom Yaeger commends for “writ[ing] new possibilities” (28, 15).

By and large Mrs. Davies ignores orthodox rules of grammar. Much to her daughter's dismay, Lottie fashions syntactic patterns to her own liking, declaring that punctuation constrains expression and therefore “[doesn't] matter” (26). Because Betty's narrative packages her mother's speech in correct grammar, Gibbons jars readers with passages of Lottie's jumbled-up writing; besides “renounc[ing] the apostrophe and comma,” Mrs. Davies characteristically clumps four or five clauses together before offering a period for rest (27). Consider, for instance, an example of Lottie's correspondence toward the end of A Cure for Dreams. As Betty angrily writes a letter to Herman Randolph, a beau who has joined the navy without consulting her, Lottie criticizes her daughter's note and “snatch[es]” the pencil to do a “better” job (147). Since we literally watch Lottie write what we read, the moment is highly ironic; in effect, Gibbons allows a character to assume the author's role, and, as author, Lottie crosses the borders of genre in a metafictional moment by writing in epistolary form. While Betty “just watch[es],” Mrs. Davies drafts the weighty document:

Dear Herman,

Just a note. I have heard this morning that you have joined the navy Swell Is this true? I'm telling you if you signed up to go to the navy you are going to hate it. You may not now sonny boy but you will later on I wouldn't think you would join the navy. My mother is very surprised and she thought I'd been going with somebody with better sense than to join the navy to be shot at in the water. Its not so smart to me either since everybody in the world knows you cant swim three feet. Although you may be mad about something you did not have to join the navy to get pleased. This is just what I have heard today so if you have not joined please do not pay attention to it.




As in a former letter to Betty, Lottie opens casually with “just a note” before firing a series of arguments, managing to highlight her own opinions concerning Betty and Herman's misunderstanding (“My mother is very surprised and she thought I'd been going with somebody with better sense”). Lottie's second sentence, a run-on, establishes her sarcasm; she debunks the statement, “you have joined the navy,” by moving immediately to a judgment (“Swell”) and then to a question (“Is this true?”). The prevalence of S's and T's toward the end of the sentence generates a spitting alliteration, the sounds of which Lottie sustains by rapidly piling monosyllable upon monosyllable. Mrs. Davies uses this rushed, alliterative tactic throughout: of the letter's one hundred and forty words, only twenty-five are polysyllables, and phrases such as “hate it,” “not now sonny boy but,” “somebody with better sense,” and “to be shot at in the water,” maintain Lottie's precedent of harsh noises.

As part of her persuasive strategy, Mrs. Davies assumes a condescending tone toward Herman. Except for the letter's salutation, she never addresses him by name, instead calling the young man “you,” “sonny boy,” and “somebody with better sense.” And though initially Lottie doubts Herman's judgment, prophesying his regret over joining the navy (“you are going to hate it”), she later insults both his intellect (“Its not so smart to me”) and his physical competence (“you cant swim three feet”). Finally, Lottie seizes the opportunity to define Betty and Herman's argument as neatly as she defines navy (i.e., “be[ing] shot at in the water”), in that she interprets the young man's actions as a response to Betty, a response to some hypothetical fight over which he must be “mad,” and thereby ignores the possibility that Herman may have joined the military of his own accord. We find, then, that Lottie's letter denies Herman Randolph any dignity; she writes to intimidate her daughter's beau, to reverse his decision or at least convince him of his stupidity. However cruel, Lottie fulfills her goal of outcomposing Betty. After reading her mother's note and feeling slightly appeased by its bitter wit, Betty imparts, “[the] letter was as good as anything I could've written, and I'd forgotten he couldn't swim” (148). The written words that “refuse to be constrained by literary form” obtain for Lottie the results she desires (Benstock 88).

If Lottie Davies gets what she wants with a pen, her manipulation of speech is even more effective, perhaps because A Cure for Dreams resounds with conversations. Through talk Lottie avoids victimization at the hands of a husband whose “gristmill served as church,” directs Bridget O'Cadhain's stolen passage from Ireland to Kentucky, obtains the material goods she desires, salvages Charles Davies's reputation among her kin, and secures Milk Farm Road's acceptance of the impudent foreigner, Trudy Woodlief (18). Yet Mrs. Davies's communicative expertise rests as much with her ears as with her tongue. In listening to what others say, Lottie recognizes that speech may well carry more than one meaning, and she often responds with non-literal interpretations. When Betty lies to her mother, for instance, insisting that Trudy Woodlief “expressed … warm appreciation” for Lottie's donations of furniture, the matriarch shouts, “Phooey,” confident that an ingrate like Trudy would never “appreciate” gifts, much less appreciate them warmly (97). In short, Lottie Davies acknowledges that her own and others' words can lead what Patricia Yaeger calls “a double life,” that the letter at once “upholds the law” and “offers a path for wandering away” (103).

Gibbons's fifth chapter, “An account of things which heretofore were unsaid, or a lesson for the tardy,” traces the murder of Roy Duplin, a man generally despised as “a sonofabitch” who “treat[ed] his wife … nastily in public” (46, 40). While the deputy sheriff searches Duplin's yard for “bullet casings and footprints and all the other kinds of things a man would naturally look for,” Lottie comforts Roy's wife, Sade, who croons and cries at the kitchen table (42). As Mrs. Davies prepares chamomile tea and tidies several rooms in the house, she “reads” Sade's lamentations more loosely than had Sheriff Carroll:

[Lottie] had been to her share of funerals and knew the varying pitches of wives' wails, the sounds made for husbands corrupted with cancer, knocked down by strokes and heart attacks, bitten by water moccasins, or gored by crazy bulls. … When she heard Sade's very peculiar cry, she said to herself, This is neither the cry of a woman startled by death or relieved that it has finally come.


Considering various motives for Sade Duplin's outbursts, Lottie at last hears “a woman being afraid, in the main, of being caught” (43). The narrative continues, “Then [Lottie] knew exactly what had happened,” and methodically recounts Mrs. Davies's re-creation of Roy's murder, step by step. In Lottie's thinking, a pie with only one piece cut and unkempt stitching attest to a wife's fury with her husband; no woman eats a prized pie alone, the matriarch contends, until “pushed past her point,” nor does she sew “wild and uneven” stitches unless “distracted out of her mind” (43, 42). Deciphering Sade's behavior with non-literalist eyes and ears, Mrs. Davies constructs a possible chain of events that led to shotgun blasts and a dead man. Whether or not we endorse Lottie's style of logic, we must acknowledge that she reasons along broader lines than Sheriff Carroll, that she welcomes clues ignored by the law and opens up—rather than restricts—the meanings of “trivial” evidence.

Milk Farm Road's “Queen Bee” also grants multiplicity to her own words and actions (100). Quizzed over the travesty of her marriage, Lottie steps into Charles's shoes and explains how easily he could have misinterpreted his young bride. When Betty asks, “Do you think you ever said or did anything … [to make him] believe he'd found a girl who'd knock herself out working on a farm?” Lottie replies, “No. Absolutely not,” but then imagines her husband's point of view:

[Charles] knew I trusted him and would more than likely yearn for things to do in his favor. He also knew that I knew how to work because Pop drank like he did and left work to the women. He had ridden by our fields and seen me getting up fodder. … Charles rolled all these ideas and sights of me together in his hands and opened them again and saw me there helping him break field boulders with a pickax. …


Willing to admit more than one interpretation of words she uttered as a sixteen-year-old, of deeds she thought denoted, “I'm marrying you for love and rest,” Lottie allows her husband a degree of leeway (13). In fact, not only does Mrs. Davies accept words' double-edge, but she at times purposefully tampers with meaning. Determined, for instance, to buy expensive fabrics for herself and her child, Lottie “educates” Charles, misrepresenting her shopping sprees as self-sacrificing, economical outings:

Charles, the gingham was through the roof. Through the roof! So I did you a favor and bought this. I know it seems incredible that a simple cotton runs more than chintz. I could hardly believe it myself. … I'm not thrilled with it, but the gingham was high as a cat's back. … I don't mind going about gaudy to save you money, and neither does [Betty]. We're both glad to do it.


Hence Lottie lies if truth becomes an inconvenience or obstacle. On another occasion, visiting her kin in Kentucky, she twists tales of Charles's death to such extremes that the family regrets their loathing of the man (106). Betty remembers, “[my mother] told [her sisters] a very moving account of how my father pulled a rover from in front of a train, thus sparing the hobo's life and losing his own,” a version far different from Lottie's earlier description to Louise Miracle: “Charles was discovered upside down, straight upside down on his head with the river rocks on either side, like bookends” (106, 83). Lottie Davies uses words, splits them up and recombines them, to perpetuate the reality she wants perpetuated.

A counterpart of the speechless woman metaphor that Gibbons revises is the woman gone insane, a literary phenomenon exhaustively treated in Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic. Summarizing these authors' position, Mary Eagleton notes that in the British and American literary traditions, a woman writer must accommodate criticism which labels her “unfeminine” and “presumptuous” for attempting the act of authorship; accordingly, she “is involved in a complex balancing act between apparent conformity to certain patriarchal literary norms and a trenchant critique of those same standards” (41). Gilbert and Gubar theorize that the “authorial rage and desire and antagonism” driving that critique are displaced in the image of the madwoman (Eagleton 41). But other feminists, such as Yaeger, question the ease with which women's studies has accepted Gilbert and Gubar's trope as “the” trope to characterize women's writing. In her introduction to Honey-Mad Women Yaeger charges that American feminists have “focused on women's discursive limitations,” and that we need, instead, “to establish a matrix of images that will emphasize women writers' empowerment” (18, 32). No doubt Kaye Gibbons agrees. In a novel that deals so forthrightly with women's relation to language, not a single madwoman haunts A Cure for Dreams; in fact, the only character to lose his mind is Charles Davies, Lottie's husband, a workaholic who commits suicide when business slows during the Depression.

That Sade Duplin escapes life in an insane asylum surprises both Lottie and Betty Davies, both of whom know “all the details of exactly how Roy [Sade's husband] was imposed upon,” or rather, how Roy was murdered in cold blood (41). For the plot of Sade's crime Gibbons borrows from and brilliantly recasts Susan Glaspell's “A Jury of Her Peers,” a short story adaptation of Glaspell's famous one-act play, Trifles (1916). “A Jury of Her Peers” traces the investigation of John Wright's strangling, a deed for which Mrs. Wright is jailed and awaiting trial. The story opens with the sheriff and county attorney escorting Lewis Hale, who discovered Wright's body, to the Wright homeplace in search of evidence for a motive. Two women, Mrs. Hale and Sheriff Peters's wife, accompany the group to gather clothes for the incarcerated Minnie Wright. While the men inspect Wright's bedroom, barn, and yard, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters uncover proof of domestic violence in the kitchen and sitting room. Among other items, the women find an unfinished quilt with a single block stitched crookedly (“the difference [from the other pieces] was startling” [335]) and a strangled canary, Minnie's pet. As Elaine Showalter observes, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters “recognize their own bonds within a cultural system meaningless to men. … In a moment of silent conspiracy, they resew the pieces and destroy the other evidence” that might implicate Minnie Wright in her husband's homicide (242).

Similarities between Glaspell's story and Gibbons's fifth chapter are striking. Much of the evidence in these accounts is identical (kitchen wares, food, shoddy stitching) and the suspect wife in each is covertly defended by female neighbor(s) from “the law” and “justice” (Glaspell 338; Gibbons 41). Minnie Wright and Sade Duplin both respond spontaneously, violently, to abusive relationships—Sade with a shotgun and Minnie with a rope. Moreover, just as Showalter describes Mrs. Hale's and Mrs. Peters's observations as “meaningless to men,” so Deputy Carroll's failure “to see and judge clean and dirty plates, slivers of cut pie, wild stitches, and wailing” has “more to do with the fact that he was full-time male than … part-time deputy and neither bright nor curious” (Showalter 242; Gibbons 46).

Gibbons's departures from Glaspell's plot, however, figure as significantly as the parallels. Sade Duplin, for instance, initiates Deputy Carroll's investigation of Roy's death, while Minnie Wright sits passively as Mr. Hale—uninvited—searches her home for Wright's body. Minnie, behind bars during the occasion of Glaspell's story, is physically absent as the sheriff and county attorney hunt for clues, but Sade wails at the kitchen table throughout John Carroll's probing. Sade also constructs an elaborate lie, a believable lie concerning Roy's murder (“Sade … reported about a rover her husband had run off from prowling about that morning, and in describing the man she was careful to describe a thousand men on the tramp” [45]), whereas Minnie answers Mr. Hale's questions with lines such as, “[Mr. Wright] died of a rope round his neck” and “I didn't wake up”—blunt, worn-down responses that Mr. Hale “didn't see how … could be” (327–28). And though Deputy Carroll never once doubts Sade Duplin's integrity, from the start of “A Jury of Her Peers,” Mrs. Wright stands condemned, with only a motive needed to set her trial in motion.

Gibbons's chief innovation in revising “A Jury of Her Peers” is salvaging Sade Duplin from the madness to which Minnie Wright falls prey. Minnie seems composed while Lewis Hale questions her—rocking quietly and calling “Come in” at his knock—but bit by bit Mr. Hale describes a woman “queer” and distracted (327). Compulsively “pleat[ing] her apron,” Mrs. Wright “laughs” inappropriately and digresses from simple-sentence responses to mere gestures (“‘Why—where is [Wright]?’ says I [Hale], not knowing what to say. [Minnie] just pointed upstairs—like this …” [327]). After twenty years of marriage and isolation, a woman who “used to wear pretty clothes and be lively” is reduced to a shadow that “just sat there with her hands held together … looking down,” a speechless psychotic who slips a noose around her husband's neck and fits Gilbert and Gubar's madwoman formula perfectly (332, 328). Sade Duplin, in contrast, keeps her wits. Betty recounts:

Neighborhood women took turns staying with Sade for weeks and weeks after Roy died. She was afraid to stay in the house alone, which with hindsight isn't surprising. We had all heard, Mean in life, meaner in death. Some nights Sade's companions had to dose her up with double and triple doses of paregoric to get her to sleep. Fear of seeing Roy Duplin or John Carroll either one at her window was more than enough to make Sade lose her reason, but she didn't.


Gibbons bends over backward to assure readers of Mrs. Duplin's recovery. Betty further describes how, after Roy's death, strangers would no doubt “put [Sade] in the category of women who chose a single life, who live in the same house with a cat or a bird or the like all their lives and seem to be so content with everything so still” (47). The cat and bird allusions to “A Jury of Her Peers” are explicit, but Gibbons points to her source only to reconstruct Glaspell's outcome: what symbolizes Minnie's dehumanization represents Sade's improved status.

Furthermore, the tale of a madwoman perpetuated in “A Jury of Her Peers” is displaced and delegitimized by Kaye Gibbons's analogous account. In Writing Beyond the Ending Rachel DuPlessis describes narrative displacement as a tactic whereby the reviser, in her remaking of a tale, shifts emphasis “to the other side of the story,” a side repressed or “muted” in the original version (108). DuPlessis's second strategy of revision, delegitimation, literally upsets the sequence of the original tale, “put[ting] the last first and the first last” to “rupture conventional morality, politics, and narrative” (108). If in the end of “A Jury of Her Peers” Minnie Wright sits jail-bound, biding time for the asylum, A Cure for Dreams restores a “clearer-eyed” Sade to the company of long-lost kin and a home renovated with Roy's hoarded cash (47). Moreover, opposed to Minnie's disoriented responses and wide-eyed gestures, Sade Duplin can talk—skillfully and convincingly—after firing her husband's shotgun; she lies to Sheriff Carroll about the rover, “press[es]” others to take Roy's belongings, and months later protests loudly against a man who deserts his pregnant wife (45, 46, 63). Insofar as A Cure for Dreams highlights Sade's coping mechanisms, and Sade's capacity to stay sane and direct John Carroll's investigation, Gibbons offers a fuller picture of the wife/victim/murderer than does Susan Glaspell, thereby enlarging sides of the guilty character which Glaspell's tale stifles. Gibbons also tampers with the sequence of “A Jury of Her Peers” in that she extends Sade's story past Minnie's experience; what occurs after Duplin's death is as crucial to the fifth chapter as the crime itself. More prosperous alone than when married to Roy, Sade “[makes] Roy's room over into a pretty little parlor” and enjoys gifts from her children (“boxes of stockings and sea foam taffy and a damask bed jacket and all sorts of other wonderful things”) who never visited while Roy lived (47). Kaye Gibbons appropriates the trappings of Glaspell's story, revises Minnie Wright's situation, and transforms an earlier feminist text's tragedy into Sade Duplin's somewhat tough-to-stomach coup.

A Cure for Dreams revolves on the transforming capacities of talk, from Bridget O'Cadhain's “Jesus, Mary, Joseph! Blessed Virgin, Mother of God!” which signifies Bridget's “oompth” in chartering a starved family across the Atlantic; to Trudy Woodlief's “Tell it!” which encourages Betty's social criticisms; to the midwife tunes Polly Deal sings, which outline proper birthing procedures (9, 10, 89, 168–69). No subject seems insignificant in Gibbons's wielding. From page one, where Marjorie Polly Randolph explains, “talking was my mother's life,” to the last sentence, “But I [Marjorie] wasn't sleeping, not for the sounds of the women talking,” Gibbons rewrites conventional assumptions of Southern history by offering a distinctly female perspective of events in a small North Carolina town in the twenties, thirties, and forties. If, as linguist Deborah Tannen posits, our lives are a “series of conversations,” we do well to follow Lottie Davies's rule of thumb in judging speech: “Listen and hear. … keep your ears open in a room with men and women” (Tannen 13; Gibbons 34–35). Certainly the women in A Cure for Dreams are strengthened rather than oppressed by words, with characters such as Lottie Davies and Sade Duplin serving as champions of linguistic know-how.


  1. The French feminists Monique Wittig and Hélène Cixous, for instance, emphasize women writers' marginality before the androcentric word; see Wittig's Les Guérillères (Trans. David Le Vay [New York: Avon, 1973]) and Cixous's “The Laugh of the Medusa” (Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1 [1976]: 875–93). American feminists, though typically skeptical of l'écriture féminine, also rage against notions of writing as an essentially male enterprise; Gilbert and Gubar blast “male metaphors of literary creation” with cynical cunning, asking, “Is a pen a metaphorical Penis?” (The Madwoman in the Attic [New Haven: Yale UP, 1984] 7). And Ann Rosalind Jones suspects that “conventional narrative techniques, as well as grammar and syntax, imply the unified viewpoint and mastery of outer reality that men have claimed for themselves” (“Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L'Écriture Féminine’” in Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Mary Eagleton [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986] 229). For a thorough treatment of questions concerning gender and language, see Patricia Yaeger's Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women's Writing. My essay, in fact, was largely conceived in response to Yaeger's challenge that we “multiply the paradigms available to the feminist critic” in describing “what goes on in women's writing” (239).

Works Cited

Benstock, Shari. “Letters: The Post Card in the Epistolary Genre.” Textualizing the Feminine: On the Limits of Genre. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1991. 86–122.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Eagleton, Mary, ed. “Women and Literary Production.” Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. 40–46.

Gibbons, Kaye. A Cure for Dreams. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 1991.

Glaspell, Susan. “A Jury of Her Peers.” American Women Writers. Ed. Eileen Barrett and Mary Cullinan. New York: St. Martin's P, 1992. 324–40.

Showalter, Elaine. “Piecing and Writing.” The Poetics of Gender. Ed. Nancy K. Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 222–47.

Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Ballantine, 1990.

Wallace, Marybeth Sutton. “Reaping Words: Gibbons Brings Words to Fruition.” Evening Telegram [Rocky Mount, NC] 23 Nov. 1990: 8+.

Yaeger, Patricia. Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women's Writing. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.

Kate Kellaway (review date 2 June 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Sights Unseen, in London Observer, June 2, 1996, p. 16.

[In the following review, Kellaway complains that there is not enough material in Gibbons's Sights Unseen to sustain an entire novel.]

Kaye Gibbons is a young American writer and [Sights Unseen] is her fifth book. It is a portrait of a manic depressive mother, by her daughter, and it reads like autobiography.

Madness may be a dramatic subject for fiction but it can also be a closed door, so that although the focus of this novel is on Maggie Barnes and the details of her breakdowns, she stays foreign, unknowable to her daughter and to the reader. There is a sense that if it were possible to climb into the madness more, to let us experience something of what Maggie Barnes was going through or to attempt to understand her psyche, the novel would have more depth. As it is, Maggie seems like a pastel version of a Tennessee Williams character who depends not on the kindness of strangers but on her brutish father-in-law (a tartar with the rest of his family). We seldom hear from Maggie directly—there is little dialogue. At first, the novel seems like a sensitively written freak show: Mother and her latest stunts.

But it improves and it is perhaps not surprising that the description of electric shock treatment is one of the best passages in the book. It is exceptionally well done: careful, horrified but not sensational and, most importantly, it is as close to Maggie Barnes as we are going to get. Equally good is the account of her changed appearance in hospital (the shock of an unbecoming hairstyle which seems to sum up the whole of her awkward, amnesiac new self) and the slow convalescence that follows treatment. It is also affecting and convincing that the daughter should hold on with such tenacity to the hope that, one day, her mother might become a real mother.

Kaye Gibbons writes with great facility and poise but there is not enough material here to sustain a novel (even if it contains enough lunacy to wreck several lives). Sights Unseen is itself an elegant straitjacket.

Nancy Lewis (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Kaye Gibbons: Her Full-Time Women,” in Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, University Press of Kentucky, 1997, pp. 112-22.

[In the following essay, Lewis praises Gibbons's characterization in her novels and discusses some of Gibbons's memorable heroines.]

“I think the Southerner is a talker by nature,” said Eudora Welty in an interview twenty years ago, “but not only a talker—we are used to an audience. We are used to a listener and that does something to our narrative style” (Conversations 94).

Storytelling is a Southern tradition. In local stores, on porch steps, the storyteller has had an audience of family and neighbors, and through generations of storytelling, much of local custom, character, and mores has been retained. Southern writers are proud of their past and of their literary heritage. In a changed and changing South, writing from an increasingly confused and complex background of shifting social scene, they've held on hard to their roots and maintained their distinctiveness. Despite the merging of the cultures of the North and the South, Walker Percy said in 1972, “perhaps it is still possible to characterize the South as having a tradition which is more oriented toward history, toward the family, toward storytelling and toward tragedy” (Welty, Conversations 95).

Contemporary Southern writers of fiction have been criticized for ignoring changes in the evolving South, the urbanization, the homogenization, and the dissolution of family—that element on which so much Southern writing has leaned. They have been admonished for continuing to exploit the rural scene and presenting a disingenuous family image. In 1989, in a piece in The Nashville Scene titled “When Is Southern Literature Going to Get Real?” the author finds current writers Jill McCorkle, Bobbie Ann Mason, and others dated and unrealistic. He teases them for holding fast to an outdated perspective. But indeed there's been good reason for the Southern writer to keep a particular nostalgia and pride in the few regional differences that were strong enough to survive the outcome of the Civil War and the nationalism that followed. Though there's no longer the rural isolation of the past, there is a legacy of speech and custom, and the family bloodline still flows. But as Eudora Welty says, “now there are so many layers of life, so many blurrings, so many homogenous things together that you have to send a taproot down perhaps deeper” (Conversations 105).

There is a present flowering of Southern writers, perhaps a third generation Southern Literary Renascence that would include Allan Gurganus, Jill McCorkle, Randall Garrett Kenan, Lee Smith, and Gail Godwin. Among this third generation is Kaye Gibbons, a writer who has written five remarkable novels in ten years: Ellen Foster was published in 1987, followed by A Virtuous Woman,A Cure for Dreams, and in 1993, Charms for the Easy Life. A fifth novel, Sights Unseen, was published in the fall of 1995: the story of a girl growing up with a mother who lives on the edge of madness. As in her other novels, Gibbons develops her characters with affection and humor, and, allowing us to share their intimate emotions, makes us feel an almost proprietary sympathy with them. With a vernacular authenticity that leads us to believe she didn't need to do her homework, she has presented us with stories and characters most definitely real, uncontrived, and of their time. She has given us, in particular, some memorable women.

From the frontier days, Southern women have shouldered rugged responsibilities. Since men are “generally a bad and incompetent unobservant pack,” women have tended to turn to each other for help, for good company, and for general local information. In A Cure for Dreams, even while favorable signs in prospective suitors are being looked for, “all this information was traded freely between women with daughters, like meringue secrets or geranium cuttings.”

Kaye Gibbons creates women with backbone. We see them as an unspoken community, for they recognize the needs and strengths they have in common and perforce. They are experienced in “the areas of loneliness, abandonment, betrayal, and other furious pursuits” (214), as the narrator of Charms for the Easy Life observes in her mother and grandmother. We come to know them as individuals, learning self-reliance the hard way, facing misfortune with ingenuity and grit. As Gibbons shows us in A Cure for Dreams, they never “glorify in tribulation” (6), but rather seek a way out or a way to cope.

Ellen Foster, in the novel with that title, is the first of Kaye Gibbons's heroines, and she is eleven years old. The straightforward first-person narrative, dramatic for what she's telling us, never garish in the telling, is a story of pain and abuse, a recounting of her meeting with one harrowing situation after another, but it's told by a survivor. From the first pages, opening with the line “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy” (1), we realize that Ellen is a remarkable, spunky little girl. Because her voice rings so true and because she's so clearheaded and honest and so funny to boot, we have absolute faith that she will find a way out of her troubles.

Ellen's brutal, drunken father is accountable for the suicide of her invalid mother. Orphaned soon after by his death from drink, Ellen must find a way of life for herself. Always practical, she realizes that in order to survive she must find herself a family. So she resolutely searches until at last she finds the right one, a kindly foster family from which she takes her last name. From the blessed comfort of her new home, where she tells us “I had me a egg sandwich for breakfast, mayonnaise on both sides. And I may fix me another one for lunch” (2), we are taken through her trials and are increasingly drawn to this plucky heroine.

After her father's death and a brief, happy stay with a sympathetic art teacher, she's placed by the court with her “mama's mama,” a demented old woman who blames Ellen for her daughter's death. Having been through the heart-wrenching trauma of seeing her mother die, Ellen is then witness to her grandmother's death. She describes these two events to us in her own vivid but unembellished words. As she lies beside her mother, who has taken a fatal number of pills, she says “My heart can be the one that beats. And hers has stopped” (10). Staying with her declining grandmother, she's determined to keep the vindictive old woman alive. “I tried to make her keep breathing and when she stopped I blew air in her like I should have. She did not live but at least I did not slip into a dream beside her. I just stood by the bed and looked at her dead with her face pleasant now to trick Jesus” (79–80).

For a while she lives with her aunt and cousin, a spoiled and trivial pair who exclude her from their closely woven lives. She sees them clearly for what they are and knowing she's unwanted tells herself she'll treat their home as if it were a hotel. “If a girl was staying at my house that I did not want there, I certainly would be pleased as punch if she announced one night at supper that you will only be seeing me at meal times unless we happen to pass each other on the way to the toilet” (96).

Ellen is sensible and smart. She's smart enough to recognize the absurdity of the school psychologist's questions during their weekly sessions. Exasperated, she says “I do not plan to discuss chickenshit with you” (89). She's smart enough to search out the new mama she needs. “I looked her over plenty good too before I decided she was a keeper” (95).

And, in one of the most poignant parts of the story, her intelligence leads her to become aware of the racial prejudice she'd harbored in her relationship with her black friend, Starletta. In the early days, even though she likes Starletta and is grateful for her family's kindness, she cannot bring herself to eat with them. “No matter how good it looks to you it is still a colored biscuit” (32). By the end of the story, she realizes from her own experiences that racism led her to feel superior. Starletta has come to spend the weekend with Ellen and her new family. Resting together before supper, Ellen muses, “I always thought I was special because I was white. … When I thought about you I always felt glad for myself. And now I don't know why. I really don't” (125).

Kaye Gibbons's accomplishment in creating this totally believable and endearing character was an earnest of things to come. She showed us in her first novel that she has the writer's gift Eudora Welty talks of: “A writer's got to be able to live inside all characters: male, female, old, young. To live inside any other person is the jump.”

Writing about Katherine Anne Porter's Miranda stories, Gibbons says that Porter's language “pulls the reader vertically towards submerged meanings and horizontally backward through time and memories.” In all her novels, Gibbons shows a deft hand in juggling past and present, and in her second novel, A Virtuous Woman, we see how artful she is. Here there are two narrators: Ruby, who is dying of lung cancer, and her husband, Jack Stokes. In their plain language, the alternating narrative tells their story, before and after Ruby's death. Through Ruby's voice, as she prepares to die, and Jack's as he mourns her, we get to know them, their views of themselves and of each other. Through each voice recalling the same scenes, their sweet love story unfolds. We're caught up in the most important moments of their lives and the people central to them—a memorable cast of characters including a handful of really nasty ones. The proverb given us in the epigraph proclaims that the price of a virtuous woman is far above rubies. Ruby is indeed priceless. “Strength and dignity are her clothing” (Proverbs 31:10–25).

She is four months dead when the novel opens, and Jack tells us he's already finished the food she prepared and froze for him in her last months, the gesture of a strong as well as a virtuous woman: “I can't do much” (7), she tells us in her fragile state, “but I can do something. There's not a whole lot a woman can do from the grave” (7). Like other women in Kaye Gibbons's novels, she survived hard times by her own strength. “I know now,” she tells us, “that this world is built up on strong women, built up and kept up by them, too, them kneeling, stooping, pulling, bending and rising up when they need to go and do what needs to be done” (13).

Jack, a childlike man with a sweet nature who introduces himself always as “Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes—stokes the fire, stokes the stove, stokes the fiery furnace of hell!” (3) is forty, twice Ruby's age, when they marry. Their love, based on a need for one another, deepens during a happy though childless marriage. Ruby knows she's “every bit of his experience” but she herself has already suffered from a disastrous match. We learn that at eighteen, babied by her fairly prosperous family, “lonesome and bored to tears” (25), she elopes with one of her father's migrant workers, a shiftless and surly man who degrades her and finally dies after a knife fight. During that brief marriage, Ruby works as a housemaid for the family who has hired her husband as a farm laborer. Here, where she is both prized and despised as coming from a higher social class than theirs, we meet the other characters central to the story. Tiny Fran, one of Gibbons's few unpleasant women, is the daughter of the household. Fat, pregnant, and unmarried when we meet her, spoiled and “mad at the whole world” (43), she is married off to one of her father's tenant farmers who takes her in exchange for the promise of forty-eight acres of good land. Her illegitimate son is a monstrous creation, a malicious rapist and woman beater who hangs Ruby's mule. The other child, neglected by Tiny Fran, turns to Ruby and Jack for nurturing, and becomes a treasure in their childless marriage.

The narrators are sympathetic people. We are attracted to them and touched by their hardships. They are plain country people; their speech rings of rural North Carolina, their metaphor is of the familiar. They are “versed in country things,” as Frost puts it. Jack's mama, he says, “was a tough, hard woman, skin like a cat's tongue” (15). Tiny Fran, “getting into her feedsack of a bathing suit must've been like cramming mud into a glove” (100). Softened by love, Jack says, “I knew the sound of Ruby crying for babies the way I know a robin's call, the same way I know the sparrow's” (103).

Gibbons's characters have their own verbal idiosyncrasies, but much of their talk is regional folk speech familiar to anyone who has lived in the South, especially the rural South. Gibbons accustoms us early on to the cadences, peculiar rhythms, phrases, and provincialisms of her characters. The phrase “used to” replaces “once” or “at one time”; Jack says “used to he used to go sit at the store” (81) and “used to I wouldn't turn my hand over for green peas” (3). “Might could” or “might would” is often used instead of “might be able”; “I might could try for this girl” (20); “she might would could've joined the 4H” (62). We hear Jack say, “I was so tired I thought I might liable not to be able to …” (79) and “It wasn't anybody else there I gave a happy hurrah about” (80).

Her characters' speech is in no way contrived. It is natural and right. “When it comes to hearing and replicating the way people speak, Kaye Gibbons has perfect pitch,” writes Anne Tyler on the cover of A Cure for Dreams, and other reviewers have noted her infallible ear. It is the voices of her characters that make them come alive.

A Cure for Dreams weaves a complex pattern of relationships, but the firm structure and the intimacy of scene and characters keep it within our grasp. We're quickly pulled into the lives of four generations of women, closely bonded by blood and by the very fact of their being women. Here, stronger than ever, is a feeling of party spirit and freemasonry.

Women's voices reverberate in all of Kaye Gibbons's novels and on the opening page of A Cure for Dreams, Marjorie, the first narrator, introduces us to her mother, Betty Davies Randolph, who has recently “died in a chair talking, chattering like a string-pull doll” (1). Marjorie says, “I had spent my life listening to her, sometimes all day, which often was my pleasure during snow and long rains—Talking was my mother's life” (1).

We hear Betty's voice comfortably narrating the family history to Marjorie, beginning with her grandmother, Bridget O'Cadhain, who, with her family, had come from Galway to Kentucky, to start farm life. Bridget's daughter, Lottie, tired of her meager surroundings, “perched on ready, hoping for a marriage proposal” (10), at sixteen marries a Welsh Quaker, Charles Davies, and they move to North Carolina. Charles is an ambitious man whose life becomes more and more obsessively centered on work in his farm and gristmill. He had expected his bride to share in the labor, but Lottie was not given to that traditional female involvement; she had married him for “love and rest” (13) and longed for babies. By the time Betty is born, Lottie has grown indifferent to Charles, and with no more babies coming, mother and daughter become increasingly close companions, sharing a life that hardly includes the driven husband.

Life at home being less than satisfactory, Lottie's energies, which are real and formidable, go into finding her own community, with little Betty always at her side, “her goal being to organize a gang of women for a habitual social hour” (30). These are lively meetings, full of gossip, politics, and gambling (this she tries to hide from Charles, who “hated gambling or anything at all involving the luck of the draw” [32]), and here we meet the women of Milk Farm Road. Betty tells us that her mother “remade herself into the Queen Bee, more or less organizing life through knowing everything” (100). She knows every household inside out and she dispenses help and advice to the point of officiousness, the justification for meddling being “anytime somebody's not looking after themselves it becomes your business” (97). But she is sagacious, sound, and of good heart, and her intimate and thorough familiarity with these neighbor women enables her to help them in extraordinary circumstances. She “knew the varying pitches of wives' wails” (43), and in one instance by hearing the cry of a woman whose husband has been murdered and by closely observing the domestic scene, she finds clues—a pie with one piece cut, a row of uncharacteristically messy stitches in a quilt the woman is making, the absence of burrs or dandelion seedwings from her cotton stockings—which lead her to deduce that the deed was done by the woman herself. Since the deputy sheriff investigating the crime has missed all these details and since the husband “was such a sonofabitch” (46), it's clear to Lottie that his wife had ample and justifiable reason to rid herself of a thoroughly bad lot.

Lottie is capable of keeping her own business to herself, of protecting herself from the nosiness of others. Her husband, Charles, undone in the Depression years by his failing farm and unsatisfied obsession with success, walks into the river and drowns himself. When a curious neighbor asks her how he was found, she replies, “Charles was discovered upside down, straight upside down on his head with the river rocks on either side, like bookends” (83). To satisfy the inquisitive questions of her Kentucky relatives, she creates a moving story of her husband losing his life while pulling a tramp from the path of a speeding train.

Strong as is her attachment to her mother, young Betty hankers to leave the confining boundaries of Milk Farm Road and see more of the world. She's encouraged by Trudy Woodlief, an exotic newcomer from Baton Rouge, introduced to us “with one leg high up on a bureau, smoking a cigarette and shaving her legs with lotion and a straight razor” (56). Trudy counsels Betty to leave her mother and Milk Farm Road, if that's what she wants, or to stop whining. Betty does have a try at the outside world. She gets as far as Richmond, Virginia, where an unhappy love affair sends her back home. Here on Milk Farm Road she marries and stays and talks. The last line of the novel is her daughter Marjorie's infant dream-memory of the moments after her birth. “But I wasn't sleeping, not for the sound of the women talking” (171).

Gibbons is increasingly adroit at handling time and place. In the stretch of years covered in A Cure for Dreams, there is no leap or disconnection; the conversational narrative transports us effortlessly from present to past and back again; the anecdotal style elucidates the past and introduces secondary characters.

Backgrounds become progressively more distinct in the novels, but though stage and scene are given in more detail, they are given only as needed for the development of the protagonists. Physical descriptions are spare—an occasional glance of green eyes, fresh lavender plaited into a braid of hair, a new dress with a row of lace at the throat—but each character is as vivid as if marked by a cicatrix.

In Ellen Foster, where the narrative is intensely inward, the time and place of the story are relatively unimportant. Landmarks have been sketched in to help us follow Ellen's journey from her unhappy parents' house to the clean brick house which is her home with her new mama and family and the setting for her new life. On the way to church, we pass houses and barns; then after going through “colored town,” we see white houses and yards, but our concentration is on what happens to the small central figure.

In the works that follow we're made more aware of background (fields, farms, rural landscape, the houses on Milk Farm Road), and of the times when events take place. In A Cure for Dreams, “homes were in the grip of Mr. Hoover and his Depression” (30). Charms for the Easy Life brings us into the Second World War, when our heroines volunteer in a veterans' hospital, and we're given background details such as jitterbugging being outlawed on the Duke campus (“not so much for moral reasons as because of the numbers of students landing in the infirmary with dislocated shoulders” [199]).

These particulars are not gratuitous or unimportant. We need them for the development of the stories and characters. Perhaps it is the Southern storyteller's inherited practice of honing and editing to please the listener's ear that has given Kaye Gibbons her skill in economy and structure. Even in Ellen Foster, she avoids the mistake made so often by writers of putting into their first novels everything they've ever seen, heard, or observed. Gibbons is never wasteful or extravagant. Her characters are always in prime focus: above all, the women and the voices of those women.

Admittedly there are some sympathetic men in these novels, and when a good man does show up he's recognized as such and appreciated with good grace. Jack Stokes in A Virtuous Woman has great appeal; Charlie Nutter, a figure in Charms for the Easy Life, is a winner; and we have every reason to believe that Margaret, the narrator of the latter story, has chosen well in Tom Hawkings. (He is approved by Margaret's grandmother, Charlie Kate, one of Kaye Gibbons's most astute protagonists.) But on the whole, men are an inferior breed. Ellen Foster's daddy was “a mistake for a person” (49). Men are represented as an unpromising lot, just by their nature, as we see in the deputy sheriff in A Cure for Dreams, whose ineptitude “had more to do with the fact that he was a full-time male than it did with the fact that he was merely part-time deputy and neither bright nor curious” (46).

Intelligence and curiosity are, on the other hand, qualities we find in all Gibbons's central women figures, who are certainly reflections of herself, for as Eudora Welty remarks in One Writer's Beginnings: “of course any writer is in part all of his characters. How otherwise would they be known to him, occur to him, become what they are?” (101).

These women, like their creator, are smart, alert, and literate, and their literary interests and intellectual curiosity are made to seem as credible as their speech. Ellen Foster tells us: “I told the library teacher I wanted to read everything of some count so she made me a list. That was two years ago and I'm up to the Brontë sisters now” (9). She is excited by the bookmobile, and she spends secret hours with the little plastic microscope she bought and presented to herself for Christmas. Enthralled with what she sees on the slides, she feels she “could stay excited looking at live specimens day in and day out” (104). In A Cure for Dreams, the narrator, Betty, “had hit the first grade running and moved right on through like I was born to go to school” (51). Margaret, in Charms for the Easy Life, spends much of her time in the two years after high school reading Sophocles, Euripides, Homer, and Aeschylus. It is her grandmother Charlie Kate's wonderful intelligence, as well as her healing powers and charismatic nature, that draws Margaret to her. “I became fascinated with her mind, enamored of her muscular soul” (46).

Charms for the Easy Life presents us with three generations of smart, strong-willed women: Margaret, the narrator; her mother, Sophia; and Sophia's mother, Charlie Kate, a character I'd match against any of the heroines I've admired in recent years. They are a vivid threesome, linked by blood and by their passionate natures. In the case of Charlie Kate and Sophia, the bond is made stronger when the men they have unwisely chosen, one way or another, leave them.

Charlie Kate, at twenty an accomplished and popular midwife, marries a man nowhere near her in spirit or intelligence and in 1910, moves with him and their daughter, Sophia, to Raleigh, North Carolina, where she becomes a curer of ills and a campaigner for good health and hygiene. When her husband leaves her, she has already established a successful practice “with sick people coming forth like the loaves and the fishes” (22). Sophia is her constant companion until she too marries a man far beneath her, handsome but a cad. Their child, Margaret, realizes, when her father dies, that it is not much of a loss. “I didn't think I'd have less of a life with him gone. I know my mother and I would have more” (49). Charlie Kate, who had so disapproved her daughter's bad choice in marrying that she refused to set foot in their house until begged to, on his death moves in with daughter and granddaughter, and their life together is the heart of the story. They are possessed of indomitable spirit and very much aware of their strength as women. As Margaret tells us, “If my grandmother could've populated the world, all the people would've been women” (93).

Charlie Kate's reputation as a self-made doctor continues to grow. Her genius is recognized by licensed medical doctors as well as by her patients, and she's proud of the fact that her fame has reached as far as the Outer Banks, where a leper hears of her healing accomplishments and walks a hundred miles to seek her help.

On her visits to the sick, Sophia and Margaret are her assistants, helping with every kind of grizzly operation; while at home, their daily life is occupied with voracious reading. “When a good book was in the house, the place fairly vibrated” (116). They approach reading with the vigor and passion with which they tackle everything. Margaret tells us that Charlie Kate “would sit for hours and contemplate the disappearance of the opening narrator in Madame Bovary with the same intensity with which she would line up a patient's symptoms and then labor over a diagnosis” (117). We don't wonder that Margaret can't bear the thought of leaving home to attend one of the fine colleges her school principal has proposed for her.

Charlie Kate is part of a tradition in the South of women healers whose cures and prescriptions are passed down from one generation to the next. In reading about North Carolina folkways and folk medicine, I've discovered that in some cases a certain amount of wizardry would seem to make the prescription questionable. A great deal of common sense, however, is usually behind these cures, plus intelligence and practicality. In a widely used volume called Domestic Medicine, or Poor Man's Friend, published in 1830 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the author, John C. Gunn, thanked God for having “stored our mountains, fields, and meadows with simples [medicinal plants] for healing our diseases” (15). Practical sense and economic necessity suggested the use of things at hand in the kitchen or garden, so remedies included local wild and cultivated plants, herbs, barks, and animals. One learns that sassafras bark or root thins the blood and prevents chills and fevers. Sage or horehound tea is good for general sickness, including colds, and bloodroot soaked in whiskey is used for liver trouble.

In her early days of healing, Charlie Kate refers to Gunn's medical manual and continues to increase her knowledge by keeping up to date with legitimate medical practitioners. “She refused to cross over the line from natural medicine into black magic, although, in many cases, if she had not combined useless folk remedies with treatments she judged to be therapeutic, her uneducated and overly superstitious patients would not have trusted her” (47). But although she's disdainful of voodoo and quackery and shows rationality and wisdom in her dealings with her patients, her prize possession is the charm given to her years ago by a lynching victim whom she had cut down and revived from near death. It is “the hind foot of a white graveyard rabbit caught at midnight, under the full moon, by a cross-eyed Negro woman who had been married seven times” (19). This is the talisman Charlie Kate has saved so many years and presents to her granddaughter, Margaret, to give to the man she loves (hence the book's title, Charms for the Easy Life).

The force behind all good writers remains the urgency to communicate. Doris Betts has said, “I write because I have stories I don't want to die with.” Certainly one feels, reading Kaye Gibbons, that her stories had to be told, her characters born. One recognizes her unfailing ear, her dazzling control of the passage of time. However, in the increasing rewards of rereading, a conscious probing fails to reveal the sleight of hand that produced these works: the translation of her talents from the inside of her head to the printed page remains a mystery. Even gazing hard at a painting by Vermeer, it's difficult to believe that these seemingly life-size portraits are contained within a canvas scarcely twelve inches square. With similar wizardry, Gibbons, in a condensed number of pages, sweeps us into the lives of her ordinary people, and they become living and three dimensional as she creates for us not only their present world but the past that has made them what they are.

Eudora Welty, in One Writer's Beginnings, says,

It is our inward journey that leads us through time—forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember: remembering, we discover: and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.


It is the expression of Kaye Gibbons's inward journey that helps to explain the distinctive accomplishments of her fiction.

Kathryn McKee (essay date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: “Simply Talking: Women and Language in Kaye Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, Summer, 1997, pp. 97-106.

[In the following essay, McKee analyzes the uniquely feminine language in Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams and the way that language binds the female characters to a community of women.]

Not coincidentally, the final word of Kaye Gibbons's third novel A Cure for Dreams (1991), is “talking.” Pairing that word with the work's first one, “simply,” reveals the primary activity of the novel—simply talking. The talkers in this case are the women of small-town North Carolina who take pleasure in the art of conversation and discover in language a power otherwise inaccessible to them as women in pre-World War II America. For the female characters of Gibbons's novel, words bind generations, not just as members of the same family or as citizens of the same small town, but as women. Gibbons offers an intriguing variation on the stereotypical assumption that southerners and women enjoy conversation. She departs in her fiction from an emphasis on language as the transmitter of history and the vehicle for storytelling in order to make conversation and its implications for female community the main thrust of her novel. For Gibbons's women, the desire and the ability to converse meaningfully about daily living are the conveyances between generations, the defining attributes that bind the novel's females into an indissoluble community and give voice and credence to the “domestic ritual” that Ann Romines discusses in her study The Home Plot. Language additionally provides the women with a balm for the dreams they relinquished in order to assume their culturally mandated roles.

Yet Gibbons's characters, like Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, discover far more powerful uses for language than solace. Particularly significant is their discovery of the transforming power of language. Language becomes the tool by which these women manipulate the information they give to male characters and by which they shape the realities they otherwise find unbearable. They discover community in conversation, then, but power in the multi-faceted semantics of words. The use of first-person narration, offered not by one, but by three interwoven female voices, is also an important feature of Gibbons's novel, particularly in light of Joanne S. Frye's insightful discussion of the “subversive ‘I’” in her study Living Stories, Telling Lives. The reader may presume the narrative form of A Cure for Dreams to be a record of spoken discourse recalled by the narrator; quotation marks enclose the body of the novel, a fact that necessarily calls the reliability of the text into question at certain crucial junctures. The speaker is Betty Davies Randolph, who cannot tell the story of her own life without the voice of her mother, Lottie, literally intruding onto the page in the form of italicized commentary. Similarly, letters written by Marjorie Polly Randolph, Betty's daughter, frame the central narrative. Thus the voices of three generations conspire to tell the tale of women who find the most satisfying moments of their lives in literal and spiritual conversation with one another. Frye maintains that a “female narrator-protagonist” resists both the cultural and the generic definition of acceptable femininity when she speaks and acts for herself. The protagonist-narrator signals to the reader (who may also approach the text with traditional expectations) that she is capable of change, that she is still in the process of development and thus traditional plot resolutions may not conform to the unfolding of her particular story (64ff.). First-person narration, then, lends power to both the individual and the communal female voices in this text, allowing those voices to tell their own stories, stories about the intricacies of female interaction.

Each of Gibbons's novels incorporates at least one female center of consciousness, and, in fact, she often renders them solely from that perspective. But A Cure for Dreams, more forcefully so than any of Gibbons's other works, addresses the issue of female community juxtaposed against the simultaneous development of the individual female voice. Gibbons's exploration of the complex interaction between women makes her text a powerful document in charting a decidedly female approach to the use of language. Hélène Cixous's observation that “there's tactility in the feminine text, there's touch, and this touch passes through the ear” (54) lends added significance to the emphasis on orality and aurality in Gibbons's narrative. Not only does she tap into the southern cultural emphasis on oral storytelling, but she also delves into a more far-reaching examination of both the positive and negative aspects of the spoken exchanges and the silences that characterize women's discourse in general—all in one thin volume, ostensibly about three women in rural North Carolina.

In focusing her novel on female discourse, Gibbons distinguishes her work both from the fiction written by the forefathers of the southern renascence and from the writing produced by her southern literary contemporaries. For Gibbons, the inheritance passed from generation to generation is not a reverential remembrance of the past, the pervasive echo of a defeated South heard, for instance, by the genteel upper classes of Faulkner's fiction. Nor do her characters allow their introspection to consume them and thus dangerously blur the distinctions between a past and a present world, as do the characters of Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren or Walker Percy. Even in a later, female-centered text like Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies, the significance attached to storytelling is its function as a transmitter of factual material from the past: family history that links one generation to the next and survives orally. While Alice Walker, in a story like “Everyday Use,” does focus her examination on female intergenerational relations, she too emphasizes the communication of family memories and inherited practical skills. Maggie does not need the quilts themselves to be able to recall her grandmother; she has learned the art of quilting and that ability connects her to preceding generations of women. For Gibbons's characters, however, the primary function of conversation is not the retelling of the past, although certainly the novel does recount one of the central character's growth to adulthood. For Gibbons's women, conversation has a value in and of itself because it lends them a voice. Historical events like the Great Depression and World War II serve simply as personal markers along the road to each woman's acquisition of an increasingly clearer and more articulate voice. The purpose of that voice is not to equip women for participation in the male-dominated discourse that undeniably continues to structure their physical worlds. Rather their acquisition of voice allows them to talk to one another, and from that communion they draw the strength necessary both to exist within and to circumvent the confines of patriarchal dominion. Thus the legacy passed from woman to woman does not depend on language as the medium for recounting particular events or for transferring the ability to perform particular skills. The legacy is simply talking.

From the perspective of the novel's female characters, the males of A Cure for Dreams err in brandishing language as a sign of authority rather than selectively and intelligently employing it as a means of power. Betty's grandfather bursts briefly into the early narrative; he proves memorable chiefly for his alcoholic and daily demands that one of his daughters cook him “a goddamn egg” upon request (8). Although he usually gets his wish, Betty's grandmother berates him so when she learns of his behavior that the kitchen disintegrates into an arena for a shouting match. Betty can well understand why her mother was “perched on ready” to escape all members of the family, regardless of gender (10). The blustering of other men in the text meets with equally limited results. When Betty is twelve, she becomes ill, and the doctor patronizingly dismisses her symptoms as “more or less popular female complaints” until the severity of Betty's illness disproves his diagnosis (22–23). Finally, Roy Duplin, arguably the least sympathetic male in the text, bellows regularly and authoritatively for his wife, Sade—until she stifles his verbal ragings with a gunshot. She probably kills him, Betty speculates, “in the midst of his yapping at her” (45). “Yapping” signals neither verbal felicity nor verbal power but instead reveals an inability to harness the potential of the spoken word.

Other male characters in the novel talk not too loudly or too harshly, but simply too much, reducing their speech to nothing more than the repetition of meaningless words and phrases. Porter, the shopkeeper, repeats the same worn-out explanations about his credit policy to Trudy Woodlief, the lower-class single mother from Louisiana, who finally responds by releasing her band of dirty, scavenging children on the store “like pool balls” (65); they extend to themselves the “credit” their mother so desperately needs. Betty's first romance, with the suave Virginian named Stanton, ends when she discovers his drug dependency. When she walks away from him in the hospital, he can only call out “Hey, girlie! Come back, girlie!” (131). He reduces himself to little more than a stereotypical catcaller with no personal connection to the target of his appeals. As in the case of those who speak with the bullying voice of authority, these men find their ability to use language stunted.

The only man who seems capable of interweaving power and authority in discourse is Betty's father, Charles. After all, he entices Lottie away from her homeland with words she recalls as “sound[ing] reasonable and true” (7). But although much that Charles tells Lottie might be true, very little about Charles's married life with Lottie turns out to be reasonable, at least from her point of view. Their love fades quickly, driven out by his churlishness and her refusal to concede to it. Yet Charles knows how to torment his wife simply by uttering the right combination of words. He consistently refers to the summer of 1932 as “the time she let [Betty] get sick”; Betty once “actually saw her [mother] put a hand out for balance” upon hearing the words (25). Yet even Charles's power wanes as his litany of complaints about the economic woes of the Depression outdistances any real suffering experienced by the family. Eventually Betty reports that she and her mother “even talked over his voice about the most trifling of things” (71–72). Poised on the brink of what Betty later recognizes as his unreason, Charles never realizes how completely the power of language has escaped him. Although, as Lucinda MacKethan observes in Daughters of Time, “Southern daughters were the creations and inheritors of a culture which in part defined and perpetuated itself by their silence” (5), Lottie teaches Betty to speak. Her father Charles is the representative cultural male who fails to acknowledge the validity of any female voice other than one that mechanically responds to his wishes. Consequently the women talk to each other; Charles talks to himself.

The females in Gibbons's text are the characters who appreciate and utilize the power of language. Lottie learns from her own mother, Bridget, that women have the power to utilize language on their own terms. An Irish immigrant, Bridget refuses to learn English. Despite the fact that her native land cannot provide sustenance for her family, she clings ferociously to the native language that has always ordered her life. Similarly, her descendants Lottie and Betty privilege their own discourse over Charles's, and in so doing privilege their concerns, even the trivial ones, over the voice of economic despair permeating Depression-weary America. Thus they create a world, a reality, of their own in contradistinction to the patriarchally defined one in which they must typically operate. By doing so they neither delude themselves with a false reality nor retreat in weakness from a reality that intimidates them. Rather the women create an alternative reality that is simply more meaningful for them. Lottie's connection to her husband's financial affairs has always been a remote one; he is the financial controller, although she clearly finds means of circumventing his authority (cleaning out his pockets in search of loose bills and change, for instance). The hardships of the Depression era unquestionably affected most Americans. But the female Americans of this novel have a different relationship to the crisis than their male counterparts. Lottie and Betty do not oversee a business. They have made no investments and a bank book does not define the parameters of their real daily world. The boundaries of their reality the women establish for themselves; their language both reflects and empowers their choices.

Women also use language to manipulate the reality perceived by the men of the novel. Occasionally they simply lie. The cycle in which Lottie swears to Charles that she has given up playing cards, only to have him later hear tales of her winnings, for instance, repeats itself several times. Yet when Lottie actually convinces her husband that chintz costs less than gingham and that she saves the family money with her prudent fabric choices, she does more than speak falsely about a single episode. She manipulates her husband's understanding of cloth, but more importantly, she shapes his understanding of her. She figuratively cuts and sews from the material a self she wants Charles to see, a self who will pacify his unreasonable nature and pave for her the path of least resistance in preserving the lifestyle she desires. Likewise, in circulating fictional accounts of the social diseases carried by the woman Roy Duplin adulterously romances, Lottie manipulates not just Roy's actions, but also his perceptions of them. The wayward Roy returns to his troubled home, and Betty learns another lesson from her mother about the power of the spoken—or in this case the whispered—word.

Lottie briefly turns the transforming power of language inward upon her own marriage as well. She most intriguingly exercises the reality-shaping power of words when she completely appropriates her dead husband's existence. Back in her native Kentucky, forced by her family to recount the circumstances of her husband's death, Lottie uses words to transform his suicide into a hero-like rescue of a vagrant from the train tracks. In fact, Charles Davies jumped to his death in what Betty characterizes as “a more particularly selfish act than usual” (81). Thus Lottie briefly glimpses a different life for herself. Yet she remains unmistakably aware of the gulf separating this imaginary world from her real one.

The impulse to manipulate perception with language is complicating from the reader's viewpoint; he or she admittedly encounters a potentially unreliable version of reality rendered by the narrative's storytellers. Lottie and Betty conclude, for example, that the family is not as destitute as the undeniably taciturn Charles maintains they are. But in the panic of the Great Depression, how far can the reader fault the household's primary breadwinner for exercising extreme caution? Is it really so ridiculously cruel of him to refuse to spend rationed gas on a driving expedition to window-shop? As his financial woes accelerate, imaginary or genuinely life-threatening, Charles retreats even further from his family and from any human contact. Betty herself observes: “My father had no friends accumulated” (69). From an early age, Betty has essentially adopted her mother's attitudes and mannerisms in dealing with her father, slipping out of the room in her mother's wake when Lottie exits in anger. Thus as Betty brands her father's suicide a supremely selfish act, the reader must wonder how intimately either Betty or her mother even know the man anymore. Also questionable is Betty's assertion that she would “have died for him to talk to me my entire life” (78). Yet Lottie tells her daughter: you “cried whenever he picked you up” (15). Whether Lottie works here to mold her daughter's impression of Charles or actually recalls the truth remains unclear. Regardless, Betty records a telling early impression of her father: she and her mother were home “chitter-chattering when he came in from work. When the door closed behind him, I thought, He's come home to ruin our day. … This was my first original thought of my father” (15). But that suspicion is really not so original. Her thought likely parallels the one that consistently springs to Lottie's mind. Neither father nor daughter seems to have actively pursued meaningful conversation with the other. Charles recognizes the daughter as a miniature rendering of the mother; Betty perceives her father as the force that threatens her bond with her mother. Thus she moves toward the female community from which her mother draws sustenance, and she learns there the manipulative power of spoken discourse.

The bond between Lottie and Betty transcends any other relationships they formulate, even spousal ones. That tie draws its significance from talking, the very activity that Charles interrupts when he returns home. Betty surmises that her father had so frequently brushed her mother aside that “she had learned to keep her hands to herself with him, which is, I'm sure, why she held my hand fairly continuously” (71). Betty returns gladly the pressure of her grasp. Yet as she clings to Betty's hand, Lottie is seldom silent. That fact is also potentially dangerous, in this case for the development of Betty's individual voice, a voice that can both articulate her independently formulated views and participate in a communal chorus. Interestingly, Mary Field Belenky et al. found in their study, Women's Ways of Knowing, “that women repeatedly used the metaphor of voice to depict their intellectual and ethical development; and that the development of a sense of voice, mind, and self were intricately intertwined” (18). Gibbons pins a similar metaphoric significance to women's literal voice in A Cure for Dreams; Betty's discovery of her ability to speak for herself parallels her movement into articulate womanhood. Yet throughout most of the text Lottie's assertiveness threatens to eclipse her daughter's individuality. She has, for example, created in part Betty's awkward relationship with her father. Lottie encourages Betty to marry Herman before he goes off to war, even going so far as to appropriate Betty's voice completely and actually compose the letter Betty “writes” to him after first learning of his intention to join the Navy. Chief among Herman's attributes, at least from Lottie's perspective, is the fact that his departure will allow mother and daughter to maintain their current routine in the same house. The wedding shower gifts Betty receives are to be incorporated into the joint household the women share. And when Betty is uncertain about how to respond to her new mother-in-law's suggestion that she bake something for Herman's voyage, Lottie literally speaks for her. In that reply, Lottie significantly shapes the role of wife her daughter will anticipate. Betty remembers that Lottie “told Herman's mother that cooking for enlisted men was not my pleasure” (153). Lottie's language literally and repeatedly penetrates the text in the form of italicized passages that overtake Betty's own observations, and the intermingling of their voices typifies this mother-daughter relationship.

Yet the reader can finally recognize each storyteller's voice, despite Lottie's insistent domination of Betty's fledgling impulses to speak. Betty periodically asserts herself in defiance of her mother's wishes (her sojourn in Richmond, for instance) and occasionally even engages her mother in heated debate. Significantly, Betty passes into independent womanhood during the birth of her daughter, Marjorie. In these moments Betty's guide is no longer her mother. It is instead Polly, a mother figure of a different race and class. Polly counsels against sending for Lottie because she has seen too many young women “look for their mama to tell them when they're supposed to hurt and stop hurting. And I think that you as much as anybody needs to do this one thing this time without Miss Lottie” (167). Thus Betty crosses the threshold to motherhood without the literal presence of her own mother, but she is better able to fill her new role because she has established the pain of childbirth in her own experience, rather than through the filter of her mother. Betty names her child in the language she now commands; thus she both appropriates the historically male task of naming and does so without Lottie, her tutor in language acquisition. Betty calls the baby “Marjorie Polly” after the black woman who delivers her, rather than naming her after Lottie. Yet the child's legacy is the same.

That legacy constitutes automatic membership in the physical and spiritual female community from which the women of the novel draw their greatest strength. The circle of women at the novel's core does not consist simply of Lottie and Betty, but broadens to incorporate both a regular gathering of females at Porter's store and the larger surrounding female community. What Lottie instigated as a social gathering becomes a support network of card-playing women; “information was traded freely … like meringue secrets or geranium cuttings,” particularly “between women with daughters,” who are the glad recipients of tidbits about the male residents of this small town (53). Polly's presence in the novel, like that of Trudy Woodlief, further signals that Gibbons's subject in A Cure for Dreams is not any particular mother-daughter relationship. It is rather an expansive community of women bound by their similarities. The women Lottie forms into a group, for example, are initially daunted by Trudy Woodlief's unorthodox behavior, but they engineer the solution to her difficulty in buying food; they offer Sade Duplin unspoken support in the face of her husband's alcoholic ragings; and they stand firm behind the economic roller coaster that becomes Amanda Bethune's life. At the center of this operation is Lottie, whose intention, Betty surmises, “was to leave [her husband] without leaving him” (29). Her refuge becomes female companionship with her daughter and with the women of the literal and emotional community in which she lives. After Betty's death, Marjorie observes: “talking was my mother's life” (2). Lottie, her daughter Betty and her granddaughter Marjorie all value similarly not just the pleasure of conversation, but also the life-sustaining force of simply talking. Thus Gibbons and her characters issue direct challenge to a commonplace disdain for “women's talk” traditionally expressed by both men and women and linked to the assumption that the subjects historically predominant in exchanges between women—“concern for the everyday, the practical, and the interpersonal”—are somehow merely trivial fact-trading (Belenky et al. 17). Conversation is the force Gibbons's characters alternately use to shape reality and to stave it off; it is their consolation in the wake of failed dreams, and it is the most enduring gift they give to one another. Talking remains Betty's life. Spoken words, transferred to written ones, preserve her story. Further, by achieving and then using her own voice, Betty lends herself authenticity outside of male rhetoric and outside of what Frye calls “the femininity text,” the typical male construction of female experience (3). Lottie herself has endowed Betty and Marjorie with the desire for that authenticity by serving as an illustration of the powerfully articulate woman.

The tellers of this narrative likewise demonstrate that talking alone is not enough to build a community. Talking is only half of an exchange that requires listening as well, the activity that lends talking its significance. Part of what makes language powerful in A Cure for Dreams is its function in creating dialogue and creating listeners horizontally among the central characters of the novel and vertically from one generation of those characters to the next. Likewise the reader may hear in the conversation of these fictional women what Romines calls “an essential rhythm of most women's lives”—the rhythm of the domestic world. Romines concludes that “when readers encounter a literature that acknowledges that rhythm and its complex traditions and imperatives, they find themselves drawing from their own lives and histories in unaccustomed ways” (15). Listening, then, is a skill to be cultivated and practiced with regularity, by the characters and especially by the reader, who likewise listens to the stories retold in the narrative. In one of her letters to Betty in Richmond, Lottie encourages her to return home because Polly “talks continuously and I need somebody here to help me listen to her” (132). Years of listening to her mother make Betty well-suited both to perform that task and to value a sense of community inspired by the interplay of talking and listening.

Lottie also teaches Betty how to hear the undertones of male language correctly. Often, Betty learns, the most important information lies in what men fail to say; absences in male language can be revelatory to women, especially when the male speaker is unaware of what he is actually communicating. Lottie demonstrates the importance of a single spoken (or not spoken) word—a woman's name—in detecting the nature of male/female relationships. The most loving marriages, Lottie asserts, are those in which the man calls his wife by name. Later, in analyzing her attachment to Stanton, Betty comes to the all-important revelation that Stanton never uses her name. And she walks away from him, hearing in his silence the future he promises. Stanton can only guess at her reasons for leaving.

Thus the women of A Cure for Dreams essentially speak and hear a different language than the novel's male characters. That female language both relies on and transcends the literal spoken word. When the sheriff comes to fetch Lottie at a birthday party, Betty recalls “all those women, including myself and the hundred-year-old lady, staring, trying to make out his lips” (40). Immersed in their own community and their own conversation, the women struggle to process the sheriff's intrusion, to reconnect to the world from which he comes and to understand its message. As Betty feared her father's intrusion on the conversation between her mother and herself, so the sheriff spoils the day with news of Roy Duplin's untimely demise. But the sheriff never understands what really happened to Roy, largely because the officer is, in Betty's words, a “full-time male” (46). Lottie pieces together the facts of Sade's crime, relying on her eye for detail in assessing household trivia, but relying most definitively on the truth she hears in Sade's wailing cry. To Lottie's practiced ear, Sade confesses to murder; to the sheriff her admission of guilt remains indecipherable because she utters it in a language that he not only cannot understand, but that he cannot even hear.

The women of this novel just as often communicate in a sort of nonverbal language. Sade and Lottie never mention the fact that Lottie quietly fixes Sade's uneven stitching on the night she kills her husband, yet certainly sending for Lottie on that evening is Sade's tacit request for the help she receives. Later, when a young boy is killed in her father's mill, Betty perceives the depth of her mother's anger in her silence rather than in her conversation; Betty recalls never having “heard her [mother] so quiet and still” (73). After Lottie essentially baits the neighbor's dogs to attack Charles as her retaliation for his hardheartedness, she tells Betty “without telling [her] how pleased she was with herself” (75). The women never literally discuss the night's events. Conversely, attempting nonverbal communication between sexes proves unsuccessful. Lottie recalls that she had thought marrying Charles “would be as plain as spoken words, that I was saying without actually saying, I'm marrying you for love and rest” (13). Charles believes he detects acquiescence in his new wife's silence, acceptance of the life based on physical labor that he spreads out before her like a quilt of possibilities. It is their first misunderstanding, but it is the same misunderstanding that they wrestle with daily for the extent of their married lives. Lottie learns to make sure she and her husband always disagree verbally.

Intriguingly, the female use of both spoken language and silence in A Cure for Dreams echoes backward in literary time to another text. Susan Glaspell's “Trifles” (1916), that likewise illustrates the peculiar ability of women to understand one another.1 In her discussion of metafiction, Gayle Greene observes that “weaving literary allusions into their narratives structurally and thematically, [female authors] problematize ‘intertextuality’ and enlist it to suggest that experience is structured by the stories we inherit” (19). Glaspell's play about two women who become complicit to murder by their silence resonates powerfully in Gibbons's narrative and may reveal that in addition to being a storyteller, Gibbons is a listener as well. In each work, female characters deduce that a dead man's wife is also his murderer, and they do so by observing the innuendoes of household living from a female perspective. The male characters bypass these details, unable to understand the vital connection in Glaspell's work between an empty birdcage and years of abuse and neglect or the link in Gibbons's story between a sliver of pie and a lifetime of waiting and disappointment. Gibbons even has Lottie restore Sade's ragged stitching to uniformity, just as Mrs. Hale rectifies Mrs. Wright's erratic sewing in the earlier narrative; both guilty women were working on quilts when their characteristically neat stitching became jagged. And in both instances, silence characterizes the ultimate communication between the novel's female characters who understand without ever uttering a word that responsibility for the crime will go unclaimed. They will never affix blame to the guilty wife, and the male characters will likely never add up enough household details to reach the conclusion so patently obvious to the female observers.

Gibbons's echo of Glaspell is likewise silent—she makes no direct reference to the earlier text. Yet the submerged parallels between the works speak volumes about a persistent conviction that men and women see and hear the world differently, that women communicate in a sort of spoken and unspoken language that males finally cannot access. Gibbons's inheritance of Glaspell's story molds her own; Gibbons's text likewise shapes the reader's understanding of female voice. Silence, so long imposed by an institutionalized male authority like the sheriff, is an equally powerful tool when women choose to use it, and thus female characters in both texts communicate just as effectively when they bypass verbal exchange. Gibbons again signals the expansive nature of her subject. She is concerned not merely with a single family or a particular situation, but with illustrating how women learn from one another to tell the stories of themselves by first understanding the tales they hear and thereby inherit from other women. Gibbons's use of Glaspell's text, if intentional, is her direct inheritance, just as Marjorie's is the stories she has heard from her mother and grandmother. If unintentional, the echo of the earlier story constitutes an affirmation that female characters and the female writers who create them often share a similar vision.

Despite Gibbons's exploration of nonverbal communication, Lottie's hope that marriage will be “as plain as spoken words” returns the reader to an important narrative emphasis on the qualities of orality and aurality—the novel exhibits a clear emphasis on the spoken rather than the written word, on hearing rather than on reading. Betty finds her mother's handwriting practically indecipherable because “the words for all the letters looped and whirled back on themselves” (26). Lottie and her daughter write frequently while Betty is away in Richmond, but Betty observes that doing so is “never the same” as talking (125). Betty finally and completely undermines the power of written language by composing a letter to her mother stating her intention to remain in the city, mailing it and then promptly packing her possessions and returning home. The written word does not bind her. Betty has always associated the power of language not with written discourse, but with oral discourse. Betty recalls that when she announced her intention to leave town, she “felt a great deal of power saying this” (114). Her own experiences, particularly in marriage, taught Lottie to harness the power of language verbally. Betty again follows her mother's directive.

The scene of Marjorie's birth at the novel's close further underscores this emphasis on orality. Polly punctuates her continual chatter following Marjorie's birth with chanted rhymes. She thereby exercises first the child's sense of sound, even before that of sight, since Polly puts drops in the baby's eyes as part of the ritual she chronicles in rhyme. Polly also shapes the baby's head “like a ball of dough” and by analogy molds her intellect for participation in the community of women to which she has been born. But the most significant instruction Polly gives the new mother is to keep Marjorie out of the wind because the ears “are the most important parts of a baby” (170). Clearly this child's ears are well-protected, as indicated by the emphasis on hearing in the novel's closing passages. Marjorie writes that her “first true memory is sound. All sorts of sounds above my cradle. … faint and loud and then shrill. Then, Hush! She's sleeping. … But I wasn't sleeping, not for the sounds of the women talking” (171). Thus the child who begins life as a listener grows into a woman who both talks and listens in this narrative woven out of the voices of three storytellers and ordered by the language of a fourth, Gibbons herself. Marjorie's written words frame the text that records the story of her mother's life while simultaneously telling her grandmother's story and indirectly recording her own. Interestingly both Marjorie's and Lottie's words appear literally in italics, suggesting figuratively that the women speak a similar language that spans generations.

Community through conversation, then, is the gift one generation bestows on the next, given and accepted freely in the feminine sense as described by Hélène Cixous in her distinction between the gift and the proper. Cixous describes as well the contrasting male impulse to resist gift-giving in the face of an insistent emphasis on the exchange of property and on being free of debt, literal or emotional. For the women of Gibbons's novel there is no physical exchange. Rather the female characters illustrate the very sense of exchange—of giving freely with an equally rewarding return. Their gift to one another is talking and listening and consequently creating a sense of community that sustains them in the world of male property, the world where, at least in early twentieth-century America, they could seldom bargain successfully.

Admittedly, the reader and the women of the narrative discover that the linguistic community built by the female characters has the potential to be both a negative force in their lives and an ultimately powerless one when confronted by a reality that remains structured by patriarchal oppression. Lottie must leave behind her mother's loud condemnation of her father in order to learn how to speak for herself; similarly Betty finally has to be separated physically from her mother in order to gain her own voice. Gibbons's women do sometimes allow their language to eclipse the voices of other women or they employ language in a characteristically male flourish of force. Lottie, for example, determinedly maintains that her daughter is healthy in spiteful refutation of her husband's accusations, and as a result seriously endangers her child's health. And Sade Duplin, despite the support offered her by her female friends, must finally free herself, not through language, but by use of murderous force. Thus a patriarchally ordered society is the backdrop against which these women necessarily define themselves; in its midst, they strain to hear one another and sometimes they fail. And while that failure may limit the power of the female community Gibbons portrays, it does not finally call into question that community so much as it helps readers to understand its complex nature and the forces that define it. Gibbons offers, then, not just an affirmation of the voices women use to speak to one another; she offers too an exploration of the inherent difficulties in acquiring a voice that sounds different from the culturally dominant one. Sometimes women mimic men and brandish language. Sometimes they become enamored with their own newly claimed voices and forget to listen. Sometimes they doubt the power of their community and feel forced to seek restitution in the violent manner Sade does. The community of women itself continues to exist, however, characterized by the conversation that propels it. The power of female language is not infallible, but it does offer to those who speak and hear it a power through communion otherwise unavailable to them.

In a southern culture based heavily on oral storytelling, Marjorie Polly Randolph does what her mother and her grandmother did not do—utilize the written text as a way to preserve the spoken word. In so doing she does not undermine the value of sound; rather she heightens it by letting her foremothers tell their own stories in their own words. In fact, Marjorie's recording of the stories she has heard orally is the climax of A Cure for Dreams. The paramount narrative moment is not Marjorie's marriage nor is it the birth of her child. Marjorie and Gibbons foil the expectations of “the femininity text” by incorporating traditional elements of it and then demonstrating that events like Marjorie's birth play a vital function in a larger accomplishment—the acquisition of an individual voice and of an audience that can both hear and appreciate it. A single voice, Frye maintains, clamors powerlessly against “the femininity text.” Representation of social reality “can only be claimed in a voice among other voices, a female ‘I’ speaking to other women and building shared perspectives as mutual outsiders to the dominant culture” (60). Those shared perspectives are the foundation for the novel's real subject: the community of women that it literally describes and the struggles of its members to acquire an authentic voice allowing them both to speak individually and to blend with the chorus of female voices that is the text of A Cure for Dreams. Finally, Gibbons broadens the arc of language's power beyond the women of the novel to touch a wide range of contemporary readers, who likewise hear in its cadences and lacuna the echo of community.


  1. Glaspell later rewrote her play Trifles as a short story called “Jury of Her Peers,” first published in 1917. My thanks to my colleague Karen A. Weyler for drawing my attention to the similarities between that story and A Cure for Dreams.

Since the time that I wrote and submitted this essay, two similar treatments of A Cure for Dreams have come to my attention: Tonita Branan's “Women and ‘The Gift for Gab’: Revisionary Strategies in A Cure for Dreams,Southern Literary Journal 26.2 (1994) 91–101, and Linda Tate's A Southern Weave of Women (1994) 195–204. Both offer detailed and insightful treatments of the intertextuality between Gibbons's novel and Susan Glaspell's Trifles and share my assumption that the female characters of A Cure for Dreams do not so much appropriate male language as they create a decidedly female way of communicating in verbal and written form. My reading of A Cure for Dreams adds to their discussions by offering a more detailed examination of the novels's male characters and an expanded treatment of the interplay between characters' individual voices and the communal voice they combine to create.

Works Cited

Belenky, Mary Field et al. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Cixous, Hélène. “Castration or Decapitation?” Trans. Annette Kuhn. Signs 7.1 (1981): 41–55.

Frye, Joanne S. Living Stories, Telling Lives: Women and the Novel in Contemporary Experience. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1986.

Gibbons, Kaye. A Cure for Dreams. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1991.

Glaspell, Susan. Plays. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1920.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

MacKethan, Lucinda. Daughters of Time: Creating Woman's Voice in Southern Story. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990.

Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.

Giavanna Munafo (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “‘Colored Biscuits’: Reconstructing Whiteness and the Boundaries of ‘Home’ in Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster,” in Women, America, and Movement, edited by Susan L. Roberson, University of Missouri Press, 1998, pp. 38-61.

[In the following essay, Munafo discusses Ellen's changing attitudes toward racial differences in Gibbons's Ellen Foster and the implications Ellen's attitude has on the novel as an antiracist text.]

Whether they are able to enact it as a lived practice or not, many white folks active in anti-racist struggle today are able to acknowledge that all whites (as well as everyone else within white supremacist culture) have learned to over-value “whiteness” even as they simultaneously learn to devalue blackness. They understand the need, at least intellectually, to alter their thinking. Central to this process of unlearning white supremacist attitudes and values is the deconstruction of the category “whiteness.”

—bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation

There's a truth that I am desperate to make you understand: race is not the same as family. In fact, “race” betrays family, if family does not betray “race.”

—Mab Segrest, Memoir of a Race Traitor

Ellen Foster tracks the plight of a young female protagonist besieged by an alcoholic, abusive father and the pressures of economic as well as emotional privation. The novel opens by turning expectations regarding domesticity and familial relations upside down. Gibbons's astonishing first line—“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy”—bludgeons the daddy's-little-girl prototype so dear to portraits of idealized families. The text works against the fine grain of highly palatable but distorted visions of domestic life and family dynamics. As Veronica Makowski claims, “Ellen Foster is Gibbons's attempt to rewrite the saga of the American hero by changing ‘him’ to ‘her’ and to rewrite the southern female bildungsroman by changing its privileged, sheltered, upper-class heroine to a poor, abused outcast.” In addition, unlike much recent work of the “new South,”1 Gibbons's first novel makes racial identity and American racism central concerns. Ellen Foster displays the racial exigency of concepts like “home” and “family” and reveals that race, and specifically racism, have been erased from the scene in primer-esque editions of the American Dream.

While engaging in explicit and compelling examinations of blackness, Gibbons also conducts a sustained interrogation of the whiteness typically exempted from consideration in investigations of race (where race typically means any race other than white). For the economically and emotionally impoverished Ellen Foster, whiteness constitutes her one saving grace, the privilege that makes her better than nothing and separates her from her black school friend Starletta's brand of marginality. The line demarcating black from white is starkly drawn by Ellen's family where racial and economic liminality destabilize home life. Ellen's father makes what little money they have by selling liquor to the black men with whom he associates—a transgression of the color line that Ellen's maternal grandmother accents by repeatedly hurling the epithet “nigger” at her white son-in-law. Thus, Gibbons establishes the major tensions underlying Ellen's domestic and familial world as both complex and incendiary.

Ellen's mother's death sets the girl's quest in motion, leaving her alone with a father whose alcoholic brutality turns to incestuous assault. Ellen's struggle to escape this dangerous and demoralizing home life leads her into a journey both psychic and material: she must simultaneously reconstruct the figurative and literal dimensions of “home.” The stories that Ellen relates chart this journey, which includes significant encounters with six different homes: her school friend Starletta's, where she finds a haven when her father first attacks her; her aunt Betsy's, where her pursuit of long-term asylum results in a comforting but brief two-day hiatus; her sympathetic art teacher's, where school officials, having discovered physical evidence of abuse, temporarily house her; her grandmother's, where the state, after terminating her father's custody and removing her from the art teacher's home, places her; her co-worker Mavis's, where, while living with her grandmother, she spies on scenes of domestic stability; and her aunt Nadine's, where, after her grandmother dies, she stays until being thrown out on Christmas Eve.

During this last, miserable leg of her journey, Ellen asks her cousin about “that woman with all the girls lined up by her” in the church pew and learns that “they are the Foster family and that lady would take in anything from orphans to stray cats” (98–99). Desperate for a home that offers the kind of order and contentment she reads in this scene, Ellen immediately determines to become a member of the “Foster family.” Her misreading of descriptor for family name underscores Gibbons's persistent antagonism toward naturalized conceptions of “family.” When Ellen does become a member of the town's foster home, she begins signing her school papers “Ellen Foster,” inscribing both her childish naïveté and one of the novel's most pressing concerns.

Gibbons insists that familial and domestic reconstitution are both necessary and possible. The location of the foster home, “way on the other side of school,” at first renders it out of reach, while its context renders it off-limits: as her cousin puts it, the Fosters live “between the nigger church and Porter's store” (114). This place, Ellen's ultimate home, is sandwiched, that is, between the very racial difference and economic exchange that the housing practices of Ellen's maternal family and white community obsessively disavow. Nonetheless, Ellen trudges the full, cold distance and tells the woman who answers the door, “I mean to be here” (115). Here, at the final turning point in Ellen's narrative, Gibbons depicts a woman-child who's taken her life by the reins, in part out of necessity, in part out of the will to change.

Although the novel accents the import of Ellen's material triumphs (managing to eat enough, dress adequately, save money, and, ultimately, find a new home), a far less tangible achievement—the attempt to reconstruct her own whiteness—crowns her development. Ellen must endeavor to reconstitute her own lived experience of white female racial identity, engendering, as much as possible, a white female self capable of interrupting complicity in white supremacy.


Gibbons figures her young white protagonist's search for home and family as continuous with and dependent upon her attempts to revise the racial, and sexual, ideologies they underwrite. Ellen's inheritance includes the assumption of an essential difference between white people and black people, and it insures that she will approach even the most mundane aspects of daily life engaged in practices that maintain and bolster white racial superiority. When she refuses to eat a biscuit her black friend Starletta offers her because it is a “colored biscuit,” Ellen reifies the essential difference between these worlds, echoing white supremacy's double-edged habit of insuring its authority and, at the same time, its invisibility via normative status.

“Biscuits,” for Ellen, remain part and parcel of her domestic and familial world—an implicitly white terrain—and become “colored biscuits” once removed from that context. Her assignment of the racial marker “colored” exposes the unspoken, unmarked qualifier always already attendant, in Ellen's world, to “biscuits”: white. In her study of contemporary American white women's experiences of and relations to racial identity, Ruth Frankenberg explores the process by which “whiteness comes to be an unmarked or neutral category, whereas other cultures are specifically marked ‘cultural.’” Her interviewees tend to understand whiteness as no culture, formless, and invisible (“bland” and “blah”), and their attempts to particularize this nothingness consistently summon comparisons “based on color, the linking of white culture with white objects—clichéd white bread and mayonnaise” (199).2 Taking the tendency of these white women to liken themselves to white bread as one marker of white, female racial identity, Ellen's designation of the biscuit Starletta offers her as “colored,” like her refusal to eat it, embodies the ideological boundaries that arise out of white racial anxiety. The color line excludes and polices other and otherness in order to bolster a whiteness that threatens to dissipate into nothingness.

Gibbons's narrative traces Ellen's progress along a route of increasing racial consciousness, moving from her specification of the biscuits Starletta's mother makes as “colored” (and, therefore, inedible to her) and her comment that the sweater Starletta's mother and father give her “does not look colored at all” (and, therefore, can be worn by her), to her recognition that such distinctions denigrate by measuring against implicit white normativity and superiority (32). Gibbons registers this change explicitly; near the end of the novel, Ellen asks her “new Mamma” to “make a fuss over how pretty Starletta is. But not the kind of fuss that says you sure are pretty to be colored. The kind that says you sure are pretty and that is all. The other way does not count” (123). While, on the one hand, this “conversion” can appear contrived, Gibbons aggressively critiques the exploitive aspect of Ellen's relationship to the novel's black families and characters. In so doing, she exposes the complex of resistance and complicity inherent in her young white protagonist's nascent antiracism.

Gibbons inevitably scripts both her heroine's subversive resistance and her inescapable complicity.3 The novel opens with Ellen's confession that, in the past, she imagined her father's death. The form that this confession takes reveals the dynamics of both racial division and of the gendered domestic order in which Ellen flounders. “When they [the rescue squad] come in the house,” fantasizes Ellen, “I'm all in a state of shock and just don't know how to act what with two colored boys heaving my dead daddy onto a roller cot” (1). In the world of her imagination, as in the everyday world of her actual life, Ellen's precarious racial, sexual, and domestic situations converge. The phrase “colored boys” at once summons the battles of the civil rights movement and their failure in this small, rural community, while Ellen's vigilance against transgressions of the color line rings out in the semantics of a racialized “they” entering her domestic space. Further, the moment of trespass figured here elucidates Ellen's sexual vulnerability.

This vulnerability surfaces more explicitly later in the novel, but Gibbons introduces it in this portrait of Ellen surrounded by men who have invaded her home (a domestic space traditionally gendered female and representative of the female body) and who, literally, support the man who, we later learn, exercises his masculine authority as well as his parental privilege by sexually assaulting her. In the logic of dreams, Ellen's fantasy figures both the wish of her father's death fulfilled and the condensation and displacement of her attendant anxieties.4 The reverie Ellen entertains here—and with which Gibbons chooses to open the novel—condenses fears of both maternal and paternal abandonment, of domestic instability, of racial disorder, and of sexual vulnerability into a complex image of trespass and invasion. Following the lead of a racist community and culture, Ellen displaces these anxieties, figuring them, not as the products of her mother's disability and father's malfeasance, but as the result of a volatile color line. Further, the rhetoric of black men “coming” in her “house,” as she puts it, lends to the scene the specter of sexual and racial trespass made one. This confluence—accented by summoning the especially incendiary interracial coupling of a white woman and a black man—establishes the narrative's insistence on the contingency of Ellen's sexual and racial negotiations. It is in the context of Ellen's struggle to achieve domestic and familial stability that Gibbons most powerfully demonstrates this contingency.

Ellen buys into the equation her grandmother posits between depravity and blackness. Attempting to salvage some shred of paternal affinity, the child lays the blame for her father's criminality and cruelty on his affiliation with blackness. Thus, instead of figuring the attendants of her fantasy as allies—insofar as they remove her abusive father—she imagines them as agents of disruption and as threats to her own racial and sexual purity.

Still on the first page of the novel, Gibbons stresses the impact Ellen's father's actual death has upon the status of their home. “Next thing I know,” Ellen tells us, “he's in the ground and the house is rented out to a family of four” (1). Ellen has no home to call her own. Immediately following this recollection, as the narrative shifts to the present, we learn that her home situation has, since then, radically changed:

I live in a clean brick house. … Two years ago I did not have much of anything. Not that I live in the lap of luxury now but I am proud for the schoolbus to pick me up here every morning. My stylish well-groomed self standing in the front yard with the grass green and the hedge bushes square.


Gibbons stresses the significance of superficial control of the domestic environment, often turning Ellen's attention to the pleasures of such control. The fact that, in her new home, “[e]verything matches” and “is all so neat and clean” enthralls Ellen (5). She embraces order as a corrective to disorder and espouses cleanliness as a corrective to filth, both literally and metaphorically.

Ellen's materialistic impulses derive from both actual neediness and what Gibbons exposes as a familial and cultural consumerism. The novel explores the impact and limitations of the latter while documenting the extent and implications of the former. Dressed warmly in winter, with regularly washed hair, Ellen cherishes the emblems of care and nurturance her foster home provides, truly amazed, after so much deprivation, that, after eating an egg sandwich with “mayonnaise on both sides” for breakfast, she can actually choose to fix herself another for lunch (2). Thus provisioned with a glimpse of Ellen's present-tense, orderly, and stable domestic situation, we lurch quickly back and forth with Ellen as she recalls the journey she has taken, beginning with its inception in flight from her violent, abusive biological home.


Gibbons provides a parable of parenting, one that Ellen relies upon after her mother's death, to gauge prospective “new mamas”:

When the beans were ready to eat she would let me help pick. Weeds do not bear fruit. She would give me a example of a bean that is grown to hold in one hand while I picked with the other. If I was not sure if a particular bean was at the right stage I could hold up my example of a bean to that bean in question and know.


Providing her with the tools to judge ripe from unripe, good from bad, Ellen's mother laid down a path for her daughter to follow in life. As Ellen says, “I just worked the trail my mama left,” and her struggle to find a home and a new mama continue this effort to reconstruct the “one season” of her mother's wellness during which she enjoyed such nurturance and care (49).

The model her mother provides contains lessons as much about fighting cultural and, consequently, racial turf wars as about discerning ripe from unripe. As in her subsequent novels, Gibbons recounts the plight of a white woman who “marries down” and incurs the wrath and rejection of her wealthy family. The physical and emotional deterioration such displacement induces contributes to Ellen's eventual homelessness. While Gibbon's attention merely skims the mother's story, it reveals how her choices shape Ellen's life. Ellen inherits from her mother the impulse to transgress restrictive social codes. Crossing the class line, in this case, entails crossing the color line, however unwittingly. For when Ellen's mother marries across class lines she enters a world where the color line so determinedly policed in her community of birth wavers and shifts erratically. Without the complementary schism of radical economic disparity, racial divisions become far more unruly and, in some ways, far more threatening.

While Gibbons's portrait of Ellen's father and his “colored buddies” suggests some measure of interracial congeniality, the author situates this integrationist cameo in the context of commercial exchange, alcoholism, and sexual violence (25). “Missah Bill,” as they call him, sells liquor to the black men with whom he drinks to excess. As the retention of formal address indicates, even among drinking buddies the distinction between white supplier and black consumer remains. On the other hand, the homosocial bonding in which Ellen's father and his black companions engage finds its support in shared socioeconomic alienation (one source of his retreat into alcoholism) and the compensatory sexual dominance they assume and enact. Ellen, whose racist essentialism rings out in her reference to the “pack of colored men” from whom she hides, tells us she “always walked in wide circles around [her father]”—a marking of distance from both his sexual rapacity and his racial transgressiveness (25). The novel scrutinizes Ellen's predicament and responses, charting the complex relations between racial, economic, and sexual ideologies and practices. Gibbons's portrait of Ellen as sexual prey and of the racial and economic contexts out of which her situation arises initiate Ellen's quest for a new home and family and her corresponding struggle to reconfigure her own racial and sexual positioning.

Ellen is “just about ripe” according to one of her daddy's “colored” friends who cautions, “[y]ou gots to git em when they is still soff when you mashum” (37). Like a sweet potato, Ellen is to be harvested and mashed for consumption.5 Sensing danger, she hides in the closet and explains,

What else do you do when your house is run over by colored men drinking whiskey and singing and your daddy is worse than them all put together?

You pray to God they forget about you and the sweet young things that are soff when you mashum and how good it feels when she is pressed up by you. You get out before one can wake up from being passed out on the floor. You get out before they start to dream about the honey pie and the sugar plums.


Venturing out from her hiding place, Ellen attempts to escape from the house, but her flight is interrupted by her father's drunken sexual assault. Gibbons shapes Ellen's narrative here so that the past-tense experience and the present-tense relating of it merge: “Get away from me he does not listen to me but touches his hands harder on me” (38). Breaking from him, she races away from the abuse her home has come to represent and towards Starletta's house, toward, as she says, “the smoke coming out of the chimney against the night sky” (38).

This paradigmatic image of hearth and home, writ large against the night sky, beckons Ellen away from her “natural” home and toward a newly reconstituted one. She runs, in part, from the blackness signified by her father and his buddies—the racial difference that essentialist white supremacy equates with both lasciviousness and violence. This is not to say that her father and his cohorts are not lascivious and violent, but the novel displays the fallacy of an implicit connection between such “evil” and race, literal blackness. Significantly, Ellen runs from one “black” scene to another here, from blackness as evil to blackness as haven. The former frighteningly threatens to undermine her whiteness (marker of both racial and sexual “purity”), while the latter provides both the necessary reification of that whiteness and a context in which to begin reevaluating it.

As the narrative progresses, Ellen's concept of “home” and all of that term's seemingly immutable qualities undergo gradual but, ultimately, radical revision. While her indoctrination into whiteness has taught her that her father's association with black men constitutes his evilness, she discovers that he is “worse than them all put together” and that his “evil” retreats “back into his self” (38). If her home consists of him, she concludes, it cannot house her any longer.

Gibbons closes the scene of Ellen's flight with the child wondering “what the world has come to,” and, indeed, her world has come to pieces in ways both tragic and, at the same time, potentially fruitful. Against the supposed fixity of domestic order Gibbons asserts its fragility and constructedness. Describing the general state of affairs in her home at the time of her mother's death, Ellen says, “[e]verything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail” (2). On the verge of disillusionment, Ellen both appeals to a higher power and registers its absence; she believes in the cosmic glue that supposedly binds families together while, at the same time, she knows that no such “natural” bonds exist in her family.

Similarly, in flight from her biological home and toward the smoking chimney that signifies haven, Ellen reports, “I gather my head and all that is spinning and flying out from me” (38). This image of barely contained disintegration—which suggests how profoundly Ellen's sense of self depends upon the state of her domestic and familial relations—closes the chapter. Acutely aware that “the one in charge” has jumped ship, Ellen attempts to take the wheel, as it were, and keep her life from “shaking itself to death.”


Willing to stay at Starletta's house only one night, Ellen turns to her mother's sister, Betsy, for shelter from her father's abuse. In selecting this new home, Ellen resorts to a set of acceptable criteria heavy on superficial elements and sadly light on more sustaining ones: a bathtub is important, as is a “nice house,” one with “flowers growed all up on the mailbox” (40–41). Superficial comforts abound at Aunt Betsy's; they shop and buy Ellen a dress and “more little things than [she] can think of,” like “a pair of gloves with a sequin cat sewed across the hands” that she “cannot play in” but “are good to look at” (41). Gibbons further stresses the feebleness of the visit's emotional substance: Ellen entertains herself by bathing, “[l]ooking in dresser drawers,” and “[f]ingering the what-nots,” while her aunt “spends right much time on the couch looking at magazines with stars in them” (41). Fresh from her father's abusive hold, Aunt Betsy's plush consumerism pampers Ellen's sorely bruised sensibilities.

However, Ellen eventually comes to deride Betsy's consumerism. Having just delivered the news of Betsy's mother's death, Ellen responds to her aunt's “so near Christmas” scathingly: “I was dying my own self,” she explains, “to tell her well Betsy why don't you just see if the undertaking driver will stop and let you shop a minute on the way to the grave?” (90). The contrast between Ellen's initial embrace and eventual rejection of Betsy's consumer-driven, superficial existence mimics the contrast between her original insistence, vis-à-vis her black coworker Mavis's family, that she “only wanted one [a home] white and with a little more money” and her ultimate realization that economic and racial demarcations cannot insure domestic and familial stability or happiness (67). Betsy's whiteness and her economic stability, at least as much as her aunthood, preselect her as appropriate guardian, just as blackness and poverty render Starletta's family inappropriate—despite Betsy's blatant insensitivity to Ellen's situation and Starletta's family's explicitly rendered concern for her well-being and its readiness to intervene. Ellen's formulation of an acceptable home as “white and with a little more money” (more, that is, than the impoverished homes of the black families she encounters) reflects both the racial homogeneity of “family” and an overdetermined correlation between racial identity and economic status.

Ellen's foray into Betsy's posh domesticity is short-lived, and she returns to her own home reluctantly, determined to evade her father's attempts to “grab and swat” (43). But, despite Ellen's heroic stab at self-protection and her persistent effort to stay “home,” school officials discover physical evidence of abuse and initiate Ellen's next series of relocations. Ultimately, the school's intervention results in a court decision that grants her grandmother legal custody, placing Ellen once more, and more permanently, in the care of her maternal family.

Ellen immediately becomes the target of the hatred her grandmother, until now, had reserved for her son-in-law. Class anxiety compels her to label Ellen's daddy “nigger and trash”—his life is marred by business failure, rowdiness, and alcoholism, all marks, when coexistent, of the downward mobility Ellen's mother married into despite (or specifically to spite) her mother's wishes. Economic hardship, emotional excess, and substance abuse come to distinguish rich from poor not because these conditions and behaviors are exclusively or even disproportionately the province of the latter, but, rather, because the authority of the former results in part from projecting such destabilizing threats onto the economic and racial others against whom it defines itself.

Although the child strongly resembles her mother (Mavis, significantly, affirms this resemblance [65]), her grandmother insists that she favors her scoundrel father. When Ellen's father dies, her grandmother tells her “make sure you cry more than you did for your mama,” legislating through her matriarchal (and economic) authority Ellen's affiliation with paternal (and alienation from maternal) ancestry (69). Holding Ellen responsible for her mother's daughterly infractions, the vindictive woman sends Ellen out to work in the fields. Ellen reports, “I used to play in the fields with Starletta and watch her mama and daddy chop but I never figured it would be me one day”—a subtle but unmistakable glossing of the separate racial spheres overwhelmingly maintained in Ellen's world and reinscribed by her grandmother (63). Ellen's white skin does not spare her field labor because her grandmother equates the girl's previous associations with black people (her father's buddies and her school friend Starletta) with a transgression of the color line so radical it renders Ellen a “nigger,” just like her father.

Each gesture further reinforces the separation the woman desperately seeks to impose between herself and the embodiment of her daughter's transgression. Translating class difference into racial difference magnifies its distance from the white self—magnifies, in other words, its otherness—to insure the stability of white, upper-class identity. This attempt to consolidate whiteness is perhaps most obvious when her grandmother ascribes to Ellen the racist clichés attached to black female sexuality. “You laid up all in that house with your daddy's buddies. I'm surprised you don't have some little nigger baby hanging off your titty,” she derisively tells Ellen (78). In this last, specifically gendered, maneuver of disassociation, Gibbons's portrait of the old, white mistress summons the not-so-subtle role female sexual “purity” plays in the struggle to define and bolster white racial identity. Constructed in accordance with racist ideology, white women's racial identity—like black women's—finds expression in explicitly sexual terms.

Shut up in a museumlike “torture chamber” of isolationism, Ellen imagines her grandmother's insistence that she is no longer white made literal. Projecting her own racial anxieties and desires onto a handy proxy, she fantasizes “turning [her] buddy Starletta loose” to “have a rampage in one room and out the other” among her grandmother's “what-nots” and “costly items” (62). Unlike the accessories of life with Aunt Betsy, the objects that populate Ellen's new quarters fail to pacify her neediness, even on first encounter. Alienated from use-value and collected as a means of self-aggrandizement, the elaborately turned furniture and ancient vases Ellen curiously ponders enjoy a protectedness only exceeded by that which envelopes her grandmother's own carefully guarded status. “I'll break your little hand if you touch that vase,” she warns Ellen, who attests to the seriousness of the threat by confessing that it made her “think how a broke hand might feel” (62).

Ellen's vision of riotous racial other wreaking havoc in the heart of white domestic civility underscores Ellen's ability and willingness to trade in racist clichés, especially under duress regarding her own unstable racial and sexual identity. On the other, the displacement of her own desires in this projection onto Starletta at the same time articulates Ellen's identification with her friend, and it underwrites Ellen's incipient reconfiguring of “home” as not showplace but habitat. Rather than painting the Starletta of Ellen's fantasy rampage “savage,” Gibbons's consistently antagonist rendering of Ellen's familial domains figures her disruptive potential as an advantageous, even necessary, corrective. The fact that Ellen imagines her desire fulfilled by Starletta (instead of imagining herself demolishing her grandmother's moneyed, white, female preserve) registers her recognition that the space is racialized, that its sanctity engenders its whiteness and vice versa.

Gibbons similarly interrogates the disjunction between the state's investment in white bloodlines and Ellen's experience of her own biological family when, after the grandmother's death, Aunt Nadine inherits guardianship of the girl. Prior to this state-engineered arrangement, Ellen's only narrated encounter with Nadine takes place in the aftermath of Ellen's mother's death, and Gibbons's portrait of their interaction then provides a telling context for the familial fiasco occasioned by Ellen's eventual placement in Nadine's home. Ellen's initial observations of her mother's sister stress the workings of the color line, exposing both Ellen's own reliance upon racist commonplaces and her aunt's obsessive racial anxiety. Ineptness, a quality Ellen disdains, summons things black when Ellen considers her aunt's inability to efficiently and calmly manage her own sister's funeral. The girl complains that “[Nadine] could not organize a two-car colored funeral so she has herself all worked up over this affair” (14). At the same time, she registers the ludicrousness of Nadine's racial paranoia, explaining, “[w]e have to drive through colored town to get to the [funeral]. … My aunt is so glad to be out of colored town. She unlocks her car door because now she feels safe” (19). Both party to and critical of such racial vigilance, Ellen catalogs its preponderance in the world of her family and community.

Nadine's fear of entering “black” spaces signals the vulnerability historically rendered fundamental to the very category “white woman.” As Vron Ware demonstrates in Beyond the Pale, oppressive ideologies of both race and gender traffic in images like this one of a white woman whose physical proximity to racial others spells racial and sexual danger.6 Ellen's ruminations about her aunt's profession, which arise as the funeral caravan makes its way through “colored town,” emphasize this dangerous proximity. Ellen describes Nadine's fawning attitude toward the undertaker, explicitly noting the connection between such deference and Nadine's “job”:

My aunt is entertaining the smiling man. That is her part-time job. When she is not redecorating or shopping with Dora she demonstrates food slicers in your home.

She will bring her plastic machine into your living room and set the whole business up on a card table. After everybody plays two or three made-up games she lets you in on the Convenience Secret of the Century. She will tell you how much it would run you in the store. If the smiling man has a wife he can expect my aunt and her machine in his living room sometime soon.


The gendered economy charted here has particular implications regarding domestic and familial frameworks. Women prepare the family's food, but men control the means by which that work can be accomplished. Thus, Nadine must broker the “Convenience Secret of the Century” through men to women. In much the same way that children's material requirements and accessories must both appeal to children themselves and to their parents, wives compose Nadine's target market while husbands are the ultimate consumer. Her job entails, as Ellen notes, entertaining men, cajoling them into the wide-spirited gesture of providing their wives with tools to lighten the burdens of domestic labor. Ellen's description of Nadine's job relies upon the popular, euphemistic rhetoric of prostitution (“entertaining men”), a correspondence that underscores the sexualized nature of her position in men's homes. As in both Ellen's original home and her Aunt Betsy's (where Gibbons stresses the ornamentalism of women's activities), subservience characterizes wives' relations to husbands, women's relationships to men—female self-interest remains routed through male desire.

Continuing her reverie regarding Nadine's occupation, Ellen links it to the racial anxiety and color line surveillance apparent in Nadine's locking and unlocking of her car door. Passing out of “colored town” and into white neighborhoods, Ellen comments, “[o]h and wouldn't she like to be inside one of these white houses peeling cucumbers in a snap! And she will tell you about how everybody got his money and especially about the doctors. All they do is cheat, gamble, and run around” (19). Nadine's eagerness (as intuited or projected by Ellen) to enter the white domestic space of the houses they pass contrasts markedly with her fear of being removed from the safety of her automobile and exposed to the perceived danger of “colored” neighborhoods. The car figures Nadine's own person/world: locked and inaccessible in response to racial difference, unlocked and accessible in response to racial homogeneity. The sexual connotations of Nadine's locked and unlocked personal space—particularly in the context of the sexualized rhetoric that describes her job—reinforce the intimately related racial ones.

In rejecting black individuals and homes as unfit for even commercial exchange, Nadine reinforces her own racial privilege while disarming the threat of identification posed by the fact that both she and the black communities/individuals she disdains are the objects of white male exploitation. Perhaps even more threatening are the potential sexual and gender-based alliances suggested by the hypothetical incursions into interracial domestic/commercial exchange Nadine so adamantly disavows. “Entertaining” a “smiling [black] man” while engaging in the sisterhood of wives generates a nightmare of miscegenistic affiliation.

The contradiction Gibbons displays here—between Nadine's projection of sexual license onto racial others and her willingness to trade on her own sexuality in commerce with white men—is a central one. White supremacy allows and encourages Nadine to disavow her own libidinal agency in the service of maintaining distinct boundaries between white and nonwhite, pure and impure. White women, in particular, must remain “locked” against a perceived threat to both their whiteness and their supposed chastity. This mechanism obscures the fact that, at the same time, sexism fixes Nadine as sexualized object in relation to men and male-dominated culture. Thus she can both endorse the myth of black hypersexuality (in locking herself off from blackness as an expression of her own sexual and racial purity) and, paradoxically, exploit her own sexuality to negotiate a space in the economic terrain controlled by white men (by unlocking herself to prospective white male customers). This contradiction results directly from the authorizing function whiteness serves in relation to the category “woman.”

Having barely initiated her quest for domestic and familial reconstruction, Ellen registers not the complexities of Nadine's racist machinations, but the simple fact of their intrusive, insipid presence. Indeed, as noted, Ellen's own white supremacist inheritance encourages her to participate in Nadine's racist orientation even as she chronicles its obtrusiveness. Later in her journey, however, when Ellen must live with Nadine, she has already encountered the stifling xenophobia of her grandmother's home as well as the alternative domestic and familial models resident in the homes of Starletta, Julia and Roy, and Mavis.

Ellen's brief stay with Aunt Nadine and cousin Dora, and especially the dreadfully disappointing and painful Christmas she spends with them, propels her into the foster care system. At this point in the novel, Gibbons's two alternating narratives converge: the predominantly unhappy story of the events that lead up to Ellen's ultimate rejection of her “natural” family (told in past tense) and the predominantly happy story of her life as a member of the “Foster family” (told in present tense). Gibbons accents the centrality of the racial dynamics operating in the foster home Ellen embraces. Recollections of life at Nadine's interrupt immediate, joyous preparations for Starletta's visit to the “Foster” home, until the narratives collapse into one at the point of Ellen's defection from her family and initiation into a newly constituted foster family. Significantly, while Starletta's visit promises, for Ellen, to resolve all inequities (“then we will all be straight,” she says), her “family” Christmas underscores the divisiveness dominating the space demarcated by Ellen's family ties (100).

Like Aunt Betsy, Aunt Nadine proves to be her mother's daughter, a woman consumed by shopping and blind to the tragic circumstances of her niece's life. At Christmas she showers her daughter, Dora, with every gift the child desires, and more, while presenting Ellen, the prototypical poor relation, with one packet of art paper. Her excuse—that Ellen is “so peculiar and hard to buy for”—suggests the more rudimentary motivation for her thoughtlessness: Nadine conceives of Ellen not as a member of her family, not even as another member of her chosen community, but as that which is “peculiar.” The grandmother's habit of magnifying the distance between herself and Ellen persists in Nadine's treatment of her ward. Framed by Ellen's eagerness to make Starletta's visit a milestone of bridge-building (afterward she hopes to feel that “the two of us are even”), this familial betrayal ends with Ellen's final severing of conventional family ties (100). When Nadine threatens to evict Ellen from her home on Christmas, the girl flees and presents herself to her “new mama,” the woman she's identified in church as a potentially appropriate mother.

In framing Ellen's ultimate break from blood ties with her endeavor to forge a meaningful and lasting connection with Starletta, Gibbons emphasizes Ellen's need to bridge racial divisions as an integral part of the process of home-building she embarks upon as a member of the “Foster” family. This family exists in curious relation to the notions of “family” that Ellen has experienced as so constraining. At once a family and not a family, Ellen's foster home provides many of the elements she deems necessary to an acceptable home, yet it allows for reconstruction, revision, and experimentation. Although she is “not sure if it has ever been done before,” Ellen asks permission for her black friend to visit for the weekend (85). And, although none of the biological family members with whom she's lived would permit this blurring of the color line on their property, Ellen's “new mama” says, “sure Starletta can come stay with us” and even offers to “whip up” some hand-towels with an S embroidered on them for their guest (99, 100). The fact that her new family welcomes Starletta overjoys Ellen, who deems this revision of “home” groundbreaking, comparing it to declarations of war and the miracle of birth (99).

Gibbons traces the development of Ellen's relation to Starletta, a relation that moves from condescension and proprietariness (“she was mine”) to respect and recognition. Starletta takes “a hunk [of birthday cake] with the N part out of [Ellen's] name”—a scriptural exchange that suggests the larger exchange taking place, one in which Ellen begins to substitute humane, empathetic identification for white supremacist distortions. Starletta ingests the N from Ellen's name, and the embroidered S from Starletta's name remains with Ellen.


Gibbons specifically locates a conglomerate model of acceptable domesticity in three extrafamilial homes, and she accents their freedom from cruelty and abuse. Significantly, she also stresses these homes' liminal positions vis-à-vis dominant modes of consumer exchange, as well as their relative remove from white supremacist patriarchy. Two of these homes belong to black characters who, as a direct result of racial exploitation, inhabit the extreme low end of the economic terrain charted by the novel. The third home belongs to a markedly eccentric white couple who debunk arbitrary racial as well as sexual divisions (welcoming Starletta into their home and reversing typical gender roles) while waging a battle against the marketplace by growing their own produce organically. Among other things, Ellen learns not that black families are good and white families are bad but, rather, that just as blackness itself does not signal evil, whiteness itself does not signal benevolence, or even sufficiency. While the novel trades, at times, in stereotypes (the black family, especially mother, as source of nurturance and care for the white child) and perpetuates servant/served models of relation between black and white communities or individuals, Gibbons persistently undermines whiteness's claims to authority and ultimately figures Ellen's development as affirming only insofar as it incorporates a resistance to white supremacist ideologies regarding her own identity and its familial and cultural contexts.

Ellen's journey both begins and ends by seeking Starletta. Gibbons opens the chapter following Ellen's father's first sexual assault with Ellen negotiating the terms of her lodging with Starletta's mother. The woman refuses payment and takes the traumatized child into her bed for the night, but Ellen's concern for maintaining racial boundaries compels her to sleep in her coat on top of the covers. Thus, she “cannot say [she] officially slept in the bed” (39). However, when she gets up the next morning, Ellen reports, “I was surprised because it did not feel like I had slept in a colored house” (39). While her experience insists that the terms of essentialist racial differences are inadequate, Ellen remains firmly situated within a sociocultural system that makes access to alternative terms both difficult and threatening. Nonetheless, Ellen intuits that Starletta's home might be a safer, more comforting environment than her own, despite the former's lack of what her white family and world had always identified as necessary prerequisites to acceptable domesticity: running water, private quarters, spotless floorboards. While Ellen continues to subordinate Starletta and her family, relying on the marker “colored” to distinguish their home and community from her own, her experience undermines this practice little by little.

Ellen's encounters with her biological family vitiate any residual faith in blood ties the girl may have harbored after her mother's death and father's abusiveness. Her placements in and observations of extrafamilial homes encourage Ellen to envision “home” beyond the boundaries of “natural” family ties. Ellen's familial experiences equip her to identify elements she does not wish to include in the home she seeks to reconfigure, and her extrafamilial experiences (with Starletta's family, Julia and Roy, and Mavis's home) enable her to identify elements she considers essential to that reconfiguration.

Only willing to seek refuge at Starletta's for occasional brief periods and expelled from her Aunt Betsy's, Ellen remains at home until, as noted, school officials intervene. They place her fate in the hands of the courts and arrange for Ellen to stay with her art teacher, Julia, and Julia's husband, Roy, until custody decisions can be made. This arrangement suits Ellen, who, when told that her teachers “had decided what to do with [her],” responds with relief, “It is about time. … Yes Lord it is about time” (45). Soon thereafter, when her father invades the schoolgrounds, exposing himself and yelling that he will “pay for it”—“it” presumably referring to sexual access to his daughter—Julia comforts Ellen and adds, “let's go home” (54). Gibbons stresses that Ellen does consider her teacher's house her home: she begins Ellen's next account, “When we got home …” (55).

But Gibbons quickly interrupts this amenable domestic arrangement with the news that the court has decided to place Ellen back with her family (55). “I do not believe it,” Ellen comments, adding, “It sounds crazy to me because the three of us could pass for a family on the street” (55). Ellen gauges the acceptability of familial relation, at least in part, corporeally. In Starletta's family, for example, she would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb—because of her whiteness. Such a unit decidedly would not “pass for a family on the street.” The court, on the other hand, has its own criteria. It upholds the white family as “society's cornerstone,” rejecting extrafamilial claims to parental relation (56).

Julia and Roy provide the care and parenting of an appropriate family for Ellen, but Gibbons exposes the ways the state intervenes to police reconstructed families in accordance with its own economic and racial agendas. Julia and Roy, ex-hippie artists and organic farmers in the post-civil-rights-movement South, cannot prevail in their bid for the child against her grandmother's Old South, monied gentility. While Ellen's virulently racist grandmother runs a plantation-like spread, houses black field laborers in “shacks,” and “[does] not pay them doodly-squat,” Julia and Roy graciously welcome Starletta into their home to celebrate Ellen's birthday (21, 66). Their response to Ellen's friendship with Starletta contrasts markedly with that of Ellen's other teachers who make quite plain that a “colored” friend “would not do” (44). Additionally, Julia and Roy eschew arbitrary gender-driven divisions of labor, Julia holding down a job and Roy remaining home to “do his thing”—garden, cook, and perform housework (48).

Additionally, Gibbons accents the correlation between Ellen's experiences gardening with Julia and Roy and her experiences gardening with her deceased mother. Indeed, it is only while working in the garden with them that Ellen recalls the single happy memory she harbors—the way her mama “liked to work in the cool of the morning” and how she worked the garden trail her mama left (49). It is during her stay with Julia and Roy that Ellen first converts the telling and retelling of that “one season” of happiness (a fantasy) into a reenactment of such pleasure and well-being (a reality). When the child welfare agency selects the aged, solitary blood kin over the eager couple as Ellen's new family, it interrupts this process of regeneration, effectively foreclosing the curative process Gibbons emphatically associates with growing seasons and garden paths. The agency's decision also authorizes the xenophobic dimensions of Ellen's biological family and rejects an alternatively fluid and inclusive familial model. The state re-places Ellen in a “home” constructed on the very grounds of white supremacy and exploitation, hence the thickness of (white) blood wins out.

Ellen observes that the judge—in positing her family as part of “society's cornerstone”—“had us all mixed up with a different group of folks,” since her family “never was a Roman pillar but is and always has been a crumbly old brick” (56). Gibbons summons the Eurocentric formula for white purity and supremacy: Greek and Roman civilizations as conglomerate figure for civilization itself, a figuring that invariably measures white superiority against the “uncivilized” cultures of darker peoples. As Ellen's white racial defenses soften, the court attempts to bolster them. Ellen must struggle not only against the indoctrination of her childhood, which enforced white supremacy as her racial privilege (the messages she received from her mother's family, as from the school system and the culture in which it thrived, that blacks “would not do” and that her father's “evil” resulted from his association with blacks), but also against legal and political institutions determined to uphold the color line by insisting upon the inviolability of white bloodlines.

Firmly ensconced within the acceptable bounds of her grandmother's home, Ellen nonetheless discovers a route beyond its racist borders. It is from the vantage point of institutionally enforced familial membership that Ellen initiates her self-consciously articulated quest for an acceptable, not necessarily biological, home and family. Gibbons continues to make racial identity central to Ellen's attempted reconfiguration of these structures. Desperate for companionship and care, Ellen develops an apprenticeship with Mavis, one of the black women with whom she works in the fields while living with her grandmother. Mavis affirms Ellen's resemblance to her deceased mother, enabling the child to resist her grandmother's insistent equating of Ellen with her father. Significantly, her relationship with Mavis enables Ellen to claim her maternal inheritance while struggling to unlearn the racism of her familial and cultural environments.

Working in the fields with Mavis—like working in the garden with Julia and Roy—reinvents Ellen's one season of happiness in the garden with her mother. Mavis, like Ellen's mother, lays down a path for Ellen to follow, and Ellen, in turn, works the trail Mavis leaves just as she worked her mother's trail. The rows of the fields mimic the paths and trails, both literal and figurative, so prominent throughout the novel. Here, too, Gibbons weaves narratives of familial reconstruction with narratives of racial reconfiguration. The “path” upon which Ellen embarks during her field-work summer becomes the path that leads to her newly constituted vision of the home she desires.

Drawn to the life outside her grandmother's pallid mansion, the child eases her hunger for meaningful, loving family ties by observing Mavis's family at day's end. Ellen, retaining her habit of marking racial difference with the prefix “colored,” discovers the “colored path” toward home:

While I was eavesdropping at the colored house I started a list of all that a family should have. Of course there is the mama and the daddy but if one has to be missing then it is OK if the one left can count for two. But not just anybody can count for more then his or her self.

While I watched Mavis and her family I thought I would bust open if I did not get one of them for my own self. Back then I had not figured out how to go about getting one but I had a feeling it could be got.


The process of denaturalizing family ties essential to Ellen's quest for a new home involves her reconceptualization of home as something one might “get” as opposed to something one simply has. Additionally, as Ellen comes to realize that the models of home available within her extended family do not meet her requirements, she must negotiate the color line, which insists that “colored house[s]” provide not models but antimodels of white homes.

Indeed, Ellen's report (just before moving from her grandmother's house to Nadine's) that “this time this would not be home” emerges specifically in the context of the distance, both literal and figurative, from Nadine's to what Ellen has come to call the “colored path” toward “home” (emphasis added, 94). Ellen relinquishes the tenets of “natural” family ties and, consequently, as she puts it, “do[es] not have to feel sad about being here [at Nadine's] in the middle of a place so far from the house at the end of the colored path” (94). The path to which Ellen refers here is, in actuality, the path from her grandmother's estate to the houses of the field laborers with whom Ellen worked all summer. Preparing to leave her grandmother's, Ellen explains,

I knew I had found a little something on that colored path that I could not name but I said to myself to mark down what you saw tonight because it might come in handy. You mark down how they laugh and how they tell the toddler babies, you better watch out fo them steps. They steep! Mark all that down and see if you can figure out what made you take that trip every night. Then when you are by yourself one day the list you kept might make some sense and then you will know that this is the list you would take to a store if they made such a store and say to the man behind the counter give me this and this and this. And he would hand you back a home.


Ellen's conception of the world remains firmly situated within a consumerist rhetoric and logic, and her reliance on the marker “colored” to distinguish one world from another persists. At the same time, the “colored path” and the lessons at its end provide Ellen with a model essential to the progress of her domestic and familial quest, a quest that entails critique of and antagonism toward these very tendencies. A continuation of the “path” laid down by her mother's lessons apropos discerning ripe from unripe, good from bad, the “colored path” comprises both the material means of access to a specific house, Mavis's, and the ideological process of reconstruction Ellen must undergo to achieve the “home” she lacks. Ellen arrives at Nadine's painfully conscious of the fact that her chosen path—the “colored path”—leads elsewhere.

Ellen self-consciously identifies domestic and familial characteristics in direct defiance of both the spoken and the unspoken racial boundaries excluding Starletta's and Mavis's homes from those culturally sanctioned as models or substitutes for her own. It is significant that Julia and Roy's home similarly provides Ellen with crucial exposure to and insight into alternative models, contributing to the conglomerate picture she incrementally sketches of a reconfigured home and family. Gibbons situates Ellen's whiteness as at once inscribed by white supremacist familial and cultural forms and practices and as susceptible to revision.

In closing, the novel equivocates. But does this equivocation derive from Gibbons giving with one hand what she takes away with another or, instead, from constraints that may be inherent in white antiracist fiction? Ellen's indoctrination into white supremacist ideology insures that when she looks at Starletta she sees a stereotype of a “little black girl.” Ellen even admits that Starletta “never has said much good or bad to me” (84). The novel can be faulted for this portrait and for its habit of making black characters and homes serviceable vis-à-vis Ellen's tragic tale and heroic advances. But insofar as it reveals the machinations of whiteness that are responsible for this kind of marginalization, Gibbons's novel, far from taking white centrality for granted, persistently strives to undermine it. The narrative struggle is one insistent upon “making room for” Starletta's story. Nonetheless, Starletta remains a narrative absence, a gap. This problem is one built into the very fabric of Gibbons's novelistic challenge here—the entire tale is told from the perspective of an abused, outcast little girl whose ability to empathize with or imagine the subjectivities of others is necessarily constrained. Aside from Ellen, no other character in Ellen Foster moves beyond type into fictive personhood. But, importantly, Gibbons makes special claims for Starletta and for Ellen's ability to move beyond the very restrictions at issue here.

Interestingly, while Gibbons makes little or no effort to develop Starletta's character beyond Ellen's caricature-ish portrait, the author admits to having considered and then abandoned the possibility. Discussing the origins of Ellen Foster, Gibbons explains that she “began writing a poem from the viewpoint of the black girl who becomes Ellen's best friend, but the story gradually metamorphosed into a novel.” In the same interview, she also mentions that, when she began a subsequent novel, Charms for the Easy Life, she had planned to continue the story of the black midwife introduced in A Cure for Dreams, but decided that the midwife character in Charms “should be white, not black, as originally conceived.”7 The tension apparent in Gibbons's account between the desire to tell a black tale, as it were, and the drive to interrogate white racial identity may be at the heart of Ellen Foster's final uneasiness. In the end Ellen's “triumph”—embodied, as the text insists, in her relation to Starletta—rings slightly tinny.

When Ellen acknowledges that she “came a long way to get here,” her “here” is both physical domestic space (the foster home) and ideological space (125). Gibbons's closing emphasis on Ellen's relationship to Starletta and to black people more generally privileges interracial (black/white) resolutions over intraracial (white/white) ones. But because Gibbons has not established adequate grounds for a truly mutual interaction between Ellen and Starletta, Ellen's imagined reunion wherein she and Starletta will finally be “even” is more wishful thinking than likely outcome (100). This problem arises, not because Gibbons mistakes her novel's “real” concern for race relations (as reviewer Ralph C. Wood claims), but because the race relations at the very heart of Ellen Foster have as much to do with the way “‘race’ betrays family” in Ellen's biological family as they have to do with interracial alliances.8

Because the novel ends with a protracted reverie about Starletta, Gibbons signals to us that here is the “here” to which Ellen has traveled all along. Forty pages sooner, however, Ellen's conception of what family and race, including whiteness, mean and do not mean crystallizes:

I wonder to myself am I the same girl who would not drink after Starletta two years ago or eat a colored biscuit when I was starved?

It is the same girl but I am old now I know it is not the germs you cannot see that slide off her lips and on to a glass then to your white lips that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you had better worry about though is the people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch. You need to look over your shoulder at the one who is in charge of holding you up and see if that is a knife he has in his hand. And it might not be a colored hand. But it is a knife.


These thoughts prompt Ellen to muse, “Sometimes I even think I was cut out to be colored and I got bleached and sent to the wrong bunch of folks” (85). As at novel's end, Ellen gropes toward her “here,” a destination whose physical manifestation she has discovered in her foster home but whose less material dimensions she will continue to explore and reimagine armed with potentially transformative experiences and realizations. Skin color does not determine character. Being from the “same batch” does not insure against cruelty and abandonment. Violence between family members is far more likely than violence between strangers. The myth of the deranged racial other is a smoke screen used to obscure the real story of domestic violence and sexual abuse in white homes. White womanhood, when sculpted in response to imagined black male sexual aggression, is both deformed and disabled—convinced that the enemy lies in wait outside, white women are made helpless against the enemy among them. Here lies the fertile ground Ellen has both stumbled upon and determinedly sifted as the basis for her continued growth.

Kaye Gibbon's first novel may not, as its conclusion so much strives to imply, heal the divisions between Ellen and Starletta (or between Ellen's and Starletta's worlds), because these divisions have been made both palpable and hardy by history, culture, and personal trauma. Nonetheless, Ellen Foster reveals the ways in which ordained domestic and familial models are intimately wed to economics of race and gender that, in American culture now as historically, are made and maintained in the service of white supremacist patriarchy. Ellen's physical and conceptual dislocation from her “real” home and family enables her ultimate relocation, both literal and ideological, in a home and family where the possibility of resisting those economics constitutes her real triumph.


  1. Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 1. Subsequent citations will be made parenthetically in the text. Veronica Makowski, “‘The Only Hard Part Was the Food’: Recipes for Self-Nurture in Kaye Gibbons's Novels,” Southern Quarterly 30 (Winter-Spring 1992): 103; Pearl K. Bell, “Southern Discomfort,” The New Republic 198 (February 29, 1988): 40.

  2. Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 197, 199.

  3. I am indebted to Caroline Rody here, whose analysis of another white, female, antiracist narrative, Wide Sargasso Sea, suggestively addresses this point. Concerned with the contours of what she calls “daughterist” literature, Rody explores white feminist and antiracist or anticolonialist revolt against systems of white supremacist patrimony. See her “Burning Down the House: The Revisionary Paradigm of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea,” in Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, ed. Alison Booth (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993).

  4. See Sigmund Freud, On Dreams (London: W. W. Norton, 1952), 76.

  5. I owe the sweet potato comparison to Angela Gilchrist, a student in the seminar on Toni Morrison's novels I taught at the University of Virginia during the spring of 1994.

  6. Vron Ware, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History (New York: Verso, 1992).

  7. Kaye Gibbons, interview by Bob Summer, in Publishers Weekly 240 (February 8, 1993), 60, 61.

  8. Ralph C. Wood, “Gumption and Grace in the Novels of Kaye Gibbons,” The Christian Century 109 (September 23–30, 1992): 843; Mab Segrest, Memoir of a Race Traitor (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 102.

Jane Fisher (review date 2-9 January 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, in America, Vol. 180, No. 1, January 2-9, 1999, pp. 17-8.

[In the following review, Fisher discusses Gibbons's On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon in terms of its relationship with the author's other works.]

During her brief career, Kaye Gibbons has earned an impressive number of literary and popular honors—awards and grants from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as the tribute of having two novels featured by Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. This wide acclaim stems from her ability to find comedy in tragedy and moral beauty in ugliness. All of her novels draw life from her unflinching honesty, her foregrounding of hatred and violence and their destructive consequences.

Many of Gibbons's novels employ first-person narrators disempowered in some way—through childhood (Ellen Foster,Sights Unseen), economic hardship or social class (Ellen Foster,A Virtuous Woman) and gender and historical circumstance, as in her most recent novel [On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon]. Disempowered, yes, but not blinded, since her narrators perceive their imperfect worlds clearly and seek solace only in truth, which, almost miraculously, leads to love.

Her novels typically begin with a sympathetic narrator or character who faces injustice early on but finds healing in a perfect parent figure (for even her married couples rely on parent-child roles). I suspect that Gibbons' major appeal as a novelist lies in her linking of unrelenting truth with the transformative power of unconditional love.

In On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, Gibbons departs from earlier works in several important ways. First, this is a historical novel, set mainly between 1842 and 1865 in Virginia and North Carolina. Its first-person narrator, Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, reconstructs the main events of her life on her last day. And what a life it has been. Born to a tyrannical father and a saintly mother on a thriving James River plantation, Emma marries an altruistic physician from a prominent Boston family and spends most of the war nursing wounded soldiers in Raleigh, N.C. After the war and her husband's death, she continues to work for liberal social causes in the Reconstruction South.

Gibbons' decision to center the novel on Emma's last day has both positive and negative effects, giving On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon a sense of biographical closure but a lack of narrative suspense, due mainly to the depiction of a life already completed, which dispenses with the openness and sense of future possibilities so often found in her works.

Gibbons' revelation of the ways in which the antebellum South depended on an intricate structure of lies is an interesting approach to the period. In choosing to write a Civil War novel, Gibbons, whose strength lies in characterization rather than overt action, private satisfaction rather than public achievement, engages one of the most daunting genres in American literature, developed with greater skill by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and most recently Charles Frazier, her fellow North Carolinian.

Yet by relating various family disputes to the larger battles of the Civil War, Gibbons has given her novel unexpected vitality, especially in the second half, reminding her reader that not all upper-class, white, slave-owning women were comfortable with slavery. Emma's moral voice, if sometimes bordering on the sentimental, much like that found in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, never reaches the pitch of Scarlett O'Hara's narcissistic whine in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

As an imaginative historical character, Emma seems almost too good to be true, both in the breadth of her experience and her lack of racial prejudice. Part of what makes Gibbons's first novel Ellen Foster so engaging is the narrator's admission of her racial prejudice, which allows her to work to make periodic adjustments, much as Huck Finn does in relation to Jim in Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Gibbons works hard in On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon to make Emma's relative lack of racism believable both through her close relationship with Clarice, a free black woman who acts as Emma's surrogate mother, and her early hatred of her father, who lied about killing a slave. Emma confesses that she is not completely free of the slave-holders' taint of lying.

Emma struggles against her villainous father, the gory Civil War hospital and the conservative atmosphere of the antebellum and Reconstruction South that would limit the sphere of her activity to the home, though her major battle—learning to tell the truth—seems to have taken place before the novel begins, and the reader must look carefully for traces of it.

On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, a lively and readable novel, becomes more interesting when read in conjunction with Gibbons's other novels or against the background of the ongoing American obsession with race, status and truth.

Kristina K. Groover (essay date Spring 1999)

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SOURCE: “Re-visioning the Wilderness: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ellen Foster,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 37, Nos. 3-4, Spring, 1999, pp. 187-97.

[In the following essay, Groover contrasts the quests in Gibbons's Ellen Foster and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.]

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

—Author's note [Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]

Mark Twain's disclaimer notwithstanding, Huck Finn's journey down the Mississippi is linked—by motive, moral, and plot—with a pervasive tradition in American mythology and literature: the notion that quest, the lone journey into the wilderness, forms the quintessential American experience. In his 1954 work The American Adam, R. W. B. Lewis describes the protagonist at the center of this myth as “a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history” (1); he is “happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling” (5). Within this myth, maturation and self-discovery are defined by a linear journey in which the protagonist gains increasing levels of autonomy and separation from family and community. As Huck Finn embarks on his journey, he leaves behind not only his abusive father, but the Widow Douglass, school, church, and all other social forces which threaten to “sivilize” him.

Despite the universality which its central position in American literature implies, a quest tradition defined by flight from family and community into an untamed wilderness is a tradition which pointedly excludes women. As Nina Baym points out, only men in American society have historically had the mobility required to produce a “believable flight into the wilderness” (72). Women within this tradition are cast not as questing heroes, but as the domestic conservators whom the heroic Adam must flee. Mythic heroes from Natty Bumppo to Nick Adams leave behind mothers, wives, sisters, and lovers as they embark on solitary quests in search of self-knowledge and truth. This paradigm of the American literary hero as a lone adventurer is less illustrative of “the uniquely American,” Baym argues, than of “what is alleged to be the universal male psyche” (79). Indeed, the Adamic myth finds corroboration in studies of male and female psychological development which suggest that maturing males in American culture learn to value individuation, separation, and linear movement, while girls and young women learn to value affiliation and community.1

Women's exclusion from the quest tradition is particularly important when considering the quest plot as not merely an adventure story, but as the central paradigm for spiritual experience in the American literary tradition. As his name implies, the American Adam's roots are not only literary and historical, but spiritual as well. Early Puritan texts depict the literal sojourn in the New England wilderness as a spiritual descent into the wilderness of the soul. In the mid-nineteenth century, when Puritanism no longer dominated the imaginations of most American writers, a pervasive concern with soul, spirit, and metaphysical experience continued to mark the writings of the Transcendentalists and their inheritors. And, despite the break with tradition that distinguishes much twentieth-century American literature, many works from the modernist canon depict crowded but spiritually void urban landscapes which reveal the intersection between the physical and the spiritual, the literal and the psychic to be found in the wilderness quest. Texts throughout the American canon depict the quest as a spiritual journey, a search for transcendence and meaning beyond the temporal world. If female characters are excluded from quest—the central paradigm for spiritual experience in American literary tradition—are they also excluded from the realm of spirituality? Or do texts by American women authors offer alternative patterns for spiritual seeking?

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster offer a prototype for examining the revision of the quest myth by American women writers. Both Huck and Ellen are children without protection in a threatening adult world; they are motherless, and are victimized by abusive fathers. Both are from southern, rural backgrounds and struggle with the racism of their communities. Finally, both texts are shaped by the quest motif, although the shapes and the goals of the journeys they depict are quite different. Huck Finn, like other Adamic heroes in the canonical literature, flees the restrictions imposed by home and family in order to seek freedom on the great river. The Mississippi River valley, described in Edenic terms, becomes a mythic wilderness in which Huck wrestles with his community's hypocrisy. His journey is not only a physical escape from society's strictures, but the struggle to transcend his community's values and to act on his own innate sense of morality. When he returns, reluctantly, to his community, it is only for a brief time: in order to maintain his integrity as the questing American hero, he must “light out for the Territory” rather than become “sivilized.” While Jim's freedom at the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a literal release from the bondage of slavery, Huck's is a spiritual and psychic freedom from the entrapment represented by society.

For Ellen Foster, however, homelessness represents not freedom, but spiritual oblivion. Although she does embark on a quest, it is not the canonical hero's linear flight from home and the restrictions it imposes, but a circular journey to home and its promise of physical and spiritual nurturance. From the safety of her new home, Ellen declares that “even when I laid out flat and still my legs felt like they were walking again. But I would not move ever from there” (120). For Ellen Foster, home is not a source of entrapment, but a sacred space which represents the fulfillment of all desire.

While, traditionally, domestic themes have served as the invisible backdrop for “important” action in American literature, recent studies such as Ann Romines's The Home Plot (1992) and Helen Fiddyment Levy's Fiction of the Home Place (1993) have identified “domestic fiction” as an important literary form during both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these domestic texts not only convey distinctive values and traditions associated with domesticity, they also critique the spiritual quest motif, subordinating it to a female-defined spirituality centered in the home. For these novelists, home serves not merely as the seat of traditional Christian piety, as in many sentimental domestic novels of the mid-nineteenth century, but as its own source of spiritual truth. In these texts, the routine, cyclical tasks of caring for children, doing housework, and tending gardens take place within a distinctly female version of mythic time.2 Characters in these works experience a fluidity between the spiritual and temporal worlds, locating spiritual truth in home and community rather than in the solitude of a wilderness quest. By portraying home as sacred, these texts deconstruct conventional dualisms between spirit and body, heaven and earth, God and human.

Domestic work, in literature as in life, is a paradox: it carries little prestige, is low-paid or unpaid, and is, by its very nature, undone nearly as quickly as it is completed; yet it is also the work without which, as Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own, “those seas would be unsailed and those fertile lands a desert” (116). While traditional male activity is linear and quest-oriented, domestic activity is by its very nature cyclical and repetitive. Domestic work is, in Romines's terms, a “sacramental activity” which perpetuates both the physical and the spiritual well-being of a household (6). Its cyclical nature approximates women's experience of time as cyclical rather than linear, and its close association with the well-being of household members reflects women's concern with relationship and community. When it functions to preserve and sustain life against a harsh external world, domestic ritual has transcendent power, blurring the distinction between earthly and spiritual life.

Both Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ellen Foster open with scenes of domestic life gone wrong. The first line of Ellen Foster both evokes and fractures the incantatory “once upon a time” of myth: “When I was little,” eleven-year-old Ellen reflects, “I would think of ways to kill my daddy” (1). The child who dreams of killing her own father signifies a distortion of natural order brought about by violence, neglect, and incest. In keeping with mythic tradition, Ellen views the distortion of her family life as having supernatural significance, her fractured domestic life serving as a symptom of spiritual disorder. Raised by an alcoholic father and a sickly and ineffectual mother, she describes her family's deterioration in apocalyptic terms which contrast sharply with her usually pragmatic language and tone: “Everything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail” (2). For Ellen, her family's degeneration is a cosmic event suggesting abandonment by “the one in charge.” Similarly, the relatives who fail to protect her are not merely uncaring, they are personifications of evil. “She had some power,” Ellen says of her hateful maternal grandmother. “Without saying one word she could make my bones shake and I would think of ghost houses and skeletons rattling in all the closets. Her power was the sucking kind that takes your good sense and leaves you limp like a old zombie” (68).

Huckleberry Finn, too, is a victim of his father's neglect and abuse. Pap Finn, like Ellen Foster's father, “drank his own self to death,” but not before kidnapping his son, beating him, and leaving him locked up day and night in a riverside cabin. In Huckleberry Finn, however, domestic concerns move quickly to the margins of the quest story. As he takes to the river with Jim, Huck flees not only his father's abuse, but the Widow Douglass's attempts to “sivilize” him. As he plans the escape from his father's cabin, Huck muses, “I didn't want to go back to the widow's any more and be so cramped up and sivilized, as they called it. … I reckoned I would walk off with the gun and some lines, and take to the woods when I ran away. I guessed I wouldn't stay in one place, but just tramp right across the country, mostly night times, and hunt and fish to keep alive, and so get so far away that the old man nor the widow couldn't ever find me any more” (23). Huck revels not in the safety and protection of the Widow's home, but in his freedom. After two months on his own, Huck confesses that “I didn't see how I'd ever got to like it so well at the widow's, where you had to wash, and eat on a plate, and comb up, and go to bed and get up regular …” (22). In Mark Twain's text, home is thus constructed as a place that the questing hero longs to escape.

For Huck Finn, spiritual transcendence is found not in the home, but in the wilderness of the great river, far from the interference of civilization. Huck describes life on the river in Edenic terms: in the morning he and Jim “set down on the sandy bottom and watched the daylight come. Not a sound, anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep” (99); at night, “Sometimes we'd have the whole river to ourselves for the longest time” (100). Although Huck, like Ellen Foster, is an intensely practical figure, he nonetheless finds in the wilderness setting a transcendent sense of peace and freedom which precipitates a rare moment of speculation about the nature of the universe: “We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened …” (101).

Significantly, it is only when Huck and Jim occasionally disembark and encounter people from riverside towns that their quest is threatened. The innocence of the questing American hero confronted with a corrupt civilization is illustrated most poignantly in Huck's encounter with the Grangerfords, who welcome Huck into their home when a steamboat runs over the raft in a fog and forces him ashore. Initially, Huck admires both the Grangerford family and their comfortable home, which seems richly luxurious to him. He is shocked, however, by the senselessness of the Grangerfords' long-time feud with the Shepherdsons, none of whom can remember “what the row was about in the first place” (92). When he observes a shoot-out between the two families in which Buck, a boy his own age, is killed, Huck is horrified: “It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. … I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night, to see such things” (97–98). Mark Twain thus represents family and community life—even in the guise of the seemingly kind and generous Grangerfords—as dangerous and duplicitous, at odds with the heroic quest and with Huck's innate sense of morality. When Huck flees back to the wilderness—to the raft and to Jim—his troubles subside: “We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft” (99). While home is a stifling and even corrupting influence, the wilderness offers freedom and transcendence beyond the “sivilized” world.

For Ellen Foster, however, the domestic realm does not suffocate, but rather sustains and preserves life. When her mother is ill, Ellen cleans the house and fixes the meals, disdaining her father for his failure to provide care. She describes activities such as gardening with her mother in Biblical terms: “my mama … liked to work in the cool of the morning. She nursed all the plants and put even the weeds she pulled up in little piles along the rows. … Weeds do not bear fruit” (49). Even after her mother's death, Ellen's few memories of domestic happiness serve as parables, stories which provide life lessons for a child without a mother to guide her:

I know I have made being in the garden with her into a regular event but she was really only well like that for one season.

You see if you tell yourself the same tale over and over again enough times then the tellings become separate stories and you will generally fool yourself into forgetting you only started with one solitary season out of your life.

That is how I do it.


Preserved in Ellen's memory, domestic practices serve a spiritual role, providing guidance and connecting the living and the dead.

Living essentially alone except for her father's occasional drunken visits, Ellen, like Huck Finn, is a child free from parental restrictions. Unlike Huck, who revels in his freedom, however, Ellen strives to duplicate a “normal” family life for herself. Following her mother's example, she compensates for her lack of a home and family by “mothering” herself while she waits for a new home. Alone, she plays “family,” cutting out pictures of a man, a woman, and children and outfitting them with cut-out domestic comforts from the Sears catalog. When she joins the Girl Scouts, Ellen plays the role of her own parent, “sign[ing] my daddy's initials saying I had made a handicraft or wrapped a ankle or whatever the badge called for” (27). While Huck and Jim shed even the restriction of clothing while living on the raft, Ellen comforts herself by wearing bits of her mother's clothing under her own dresses. And, while Huck Finn pulls fish from the river and steals melons from gardens, Ellen chooses the food that most resembles, for her, a proper meal: “I found the best deal was the plate froze with food already on it. A meat, two vegetables, and a dab of dessert” (25). While Ellen can replicate the domestic trappings of a real home, however, she knows that its essence lies not in material things, but in maternal love. Taking control of her own destiny, Ellen defines the goal of her quest in domestic terms: “I decided that if I quit wasting time I could be happy as anybody else in the future. … And that is what I did. That is why I think I am somebody now because I said by damn this is how it is going to be and before I knew it I had a new mama” (95).

In the course of their quests, both Huck and Ellen reject conventional religion as ineffectual at best and hypocritical at worst. Living at the Widow's house, Huck exposes the falsity of Miss Watson's religious platitudes:

She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn't no good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work. By-and-by, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way.


Even while admiring the Grangerfords, Huck recognizes their duplicity as they sit in church with guns held between their knees, then talk admiringly afterward of the preacher's sermon on brotherly love. Ellen, similarly, recognizes the hypocrisy of traditional religion in the blundering, superficial minister who performs her mother's funeral service:

I do not know this preacher. He says that even though he did not know my mama he feels like he knew her well because he has met us and we are all so nice. It does not bother him that what he said does not make good sense.

And what else are you going to say when the Bible comes flat out and says killing yourself is flinging God's gift back into his face and He will not forgive you for it ever? The preacher leaves that out and goes straight to the green valleys and the streets of silver and gold.


For Ellen, the easy platitudes of conventional religion provide neither help nor comfort. When she learns that her new mama receives financial support from a local congregation, she accepts her obligations pragmatically: “You go in that church and act genuine. Even if you think what he has to say that week is horse manure or even if you believe it is a lie you sit there and be still. Worse could happen than for you to sit for an hour. You could be where you came from” (56).

Living with her new mama, Ellen finds that real fulfillment comes not during church, but afterward, in her new home. Ellen confesses that she stays “starved” all through the service, waiting for the real nourishment that comes afterward: “When or if you come to my house now after church you will smell all the things that have been simmering on low. It has been waiting for me and me for it” (58). As important as the physical nourishment of Sunday dinner is the spiritual nourishment gained through the ritual of preparing food for the coming week, a communal activity that is at the heart of Ellen's new domestic life:

Everything we do almost on Sundays has to do with food. When we finish the meal on hand it is time to prepare chicken salad, ham salad, bread, three bean soup, or what have you for that week's lunch boxes. …

Everybody like me, Stella, Francis, my new mama, Jo Jo, but not the baby are involved in this Sunday cooking. …

Today it is bread and soup. It does not sound like much but it is hardy and I like to show it off in the lunchroom when all the other people have a measly tray of this or that.


In comparison to the Sunday dinner and rich domestic ritual that follows the service, churchgoing is an empty tradition.

As ineffectual as the church as a source of healing is the school psychologist with whom Ellen meets weekly. The psychologist's inscrutable questions, his accusations of defensiveness and twisting of Ellen's words “like a miracle into exactly what he wanted me to say” make it impossible for her to tell the truth about her life. “I do not plan to discuss chickenshit with you,” she tells him definitively on her final visit. “I might be confused sometimes in my head but it is not something you need to talk about. Before you can talk you have to line it all up in order and I had rather just let it swirl around until I am too tired to think” (89). In order to recover from her past, Ellen requires not the professional care of a minister or psychologist, but the loving care found in the home. “[T]here have been more than a plenty days,” Ellen says of her new mama, “when she has put both my hands in hers and said if we relax and breathe slow together I can slow down shaking. And it always works” (121). Her new mama's “cure” for Ellen's troubles lies in such nurturing activities as washing Ellen's hair (“I feel her long fingers on my head and pray that it takes a long time for me to be clean,” Ellen confesses), sewing and cooking for her, and including her in the communal activities of the household (36). Through domestic ritual and maternal love, this foster mother nurtures not only Ellen, but all of her girls. “You don't need to see through the walls here to know when my new mama is alone with one of her girls telling them about how to be strong or rubbing their backs,” Ellen reports. “You can imagine it easy if it has happened to you” (121). In Kaye Gibbons's fictional world, healing of both body and spirit is found in the home.

As she establishes family and domestic life as sources of transcendence, Gibbons redefines home and family. Like Pap Finn, Ellen's own relatives threaten her safety rather than protecting and nurturing her. After her mother's death, Ellen's father fails to provide for her most basic needs, neglecting either to feed her or to pay the power bill. When her father and his friends make their sporadic raids on the kitchen, Ellen is affronted at this invasion of her domestic space: “Who said they could come in my house and have a free-for-all?” she wonders. “Who said they could be here?” (37). Ellen's other relatives also prove inadequate at providing care. Ellen describes the few days she spends with her Aunt Betsy as a scene of domestic bliss:

All afternoon and night and on into the next day is like magic. I do not think of anything but the flowers on the sheets and the bubbles in the bath water.

This is the life.


Unlike Huck, who finds such trappings “smothery,” Ellen is supremely happy amidst these domestic comforts. While Aunt Betsy is happy enough to have Ellen spend a weekend with her, however, she has no intention of becoming a surrogate mother. When the court places Ellen with her maternal grandmother, her unsuitability as a mother figure is signified by Ellen's description of her house as a “museum” full of “what-nots” that she is forbidden to touch. Even the meals her grandmother serves illustrate the gulf between the two. On most days, Ellen comes home to find a plate left for her in the kitchen. On Sundays, however, when she and her grandmother share the dinner table, “we both picked at our little individual chickens or turkeys and did not talk” (66). Compared to the communal tradition that accompanies meal preparation at her new mama's house, meal time in her grandmother's home reflects the absence of a true family life.

While Ellen is taken in grudgingly by her own relatives, she is lovingly embraced by a variety of alternative families. When her father sexually abuses her, Ellen flees not into the wilderness, as Huck Finn does in fleeing from his own abusive father, but to a loving home: that of her friend, Starletta. From her own lonely home, Ellen has often watched the smoke rising from Starletta's chimney, musing that “[y]ou know it is a warm fire where the smoke starts” (29). When her father assaults her, Ellen instinctively runs “down the road to Starletta. Now to the smoke coming out of the chimney against the night sky I run” (38). When she is placed in a temporary home with her art teacher and her husband, Ellen observes longingly that “the three of us could pass for a family on the street” (55). In contrast to Ellen's “real” family, Julia and Roy allow her to be a child for the first time in her life:

She said it was good I loosened up. We would run around and she would tell me to let it all hang out. Let your hair down good golly Miss Molly let it all hang out. Go with the flow, she would say. Make up a tune and throw in some words and go with the flow.

I had no idea people could live like that.


While such alternative families prove far better at meeting Ellen's needs than does her own family, however, the court insists that she be placed with her own relatives, again signifying the ineffectiveness of institutions in providing care. “What do you do when the judge talks about the family society's cornerstone but you know yours was never a Roman pillar but is and always has been crumbly old brick?” Ellen wonders. “He had us all mixed up with a different group of folks” (56). Her forced return to her nightmarish relatives recalls Huck Finn's similar plight at the hands of another well-meaning but uninformed judge: “The judge and the widow went to law to get the court to take me away from him and let one of them be my guardian; but it was a new judge that had just come, and he didn't know the old man; so he said courts mustn't interfere and separate families if they could help it; said he'd druther not take a child away from its father” (19–20). While Ellen persists in her search for family, however, redefining family in the process, Huck rejects the very notion of family. At the end of his adventure, when Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally vows to adopt and “sivilize” Huck, he balks: “I can't stand it. I been there before” (245). While domesticity threatens to encroach on Huck's freedom as long as he remains within reach of the Widow Douglass and Aunt Sally, beyond the Mississippi River valley lies the seemingly endless wilderness of the Territory, with its seductive promise of quest, freedom, and adventure.

Ellen's desperate quest for a home and family gradually leads her to question the racism she has inherited from her community. Although she seeks shelter from her father at Starletta's house, Ellen refuses to eat any of the food Starletta's mother prepares; wary of staying in a “colored house,” she sleeps, fully dressed, on top of the covers. Reflecting her community's bigotry, she worries, “As fond as I am of all three of them I do not think I could drink after them. I try to see what Starletta leaves on the lip of a bottle but I have never seen anything with the naked eye. If something is that small it is bound to get into your system and do some damage” (29–30). While she is living with her grandmother, Ellen is cared for by Mavis, a black servant who tells her stories of her mother's girlhood and shields her from her grandmother's cruelty. Each evening, Ellen walks to Mavis's house to watch her and her family. Seeing their care for one another, Ellen begins to reconsider her own understanding of family:

I started a list of all that a family should have. Of course there is the mama and the daddy but if one has to be missing then it is OK if the one left can count for two …

While I watched Mavis and her family I thought I would bust open if I did not get one of them for my own self soon. Back then I had not figured out how to go about getting one but I had a feeling it could be got.


As she gains experience with her own neglectful family and with the outsiders who care for her, Ellen gradually reconsiders the meaning of family:

I am old now I know it is not the germs you cannot see that slide off her lips and on to a glass then to your white lips that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you had better worry about though is the people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch. You need to look over your shoulder at the one who is in charge of holding you up and see if that is a knife he has in his hand. And it might not be a colored hand. But it is a knife. …

When I stayed with my mama's mama I made a list of all that I wanted my family to be and I put down white and have running water.

Now it makes me ashamed to think I said that.


In redefining family, Gibbons suggests that blood ties cannot always be trusted to “[hold] you up.” Far from creating a despairing picture of family, Gibbons merely widens her focus, finding love and support for her heroine from sources that the rural southern community rejects. Ellen finds the love that sustains her only when she abandons both her community's prejudices and its restrictive definition of family.

Huck Finn, too, must reject his community's prejudices in order to fulfill his quest. Although Huck lives on the margins of his community, he has internalized its bigotry: he acknowledges that Jim “had an uncommon level head, for a nigger” (65) but claims that “you can't learn a nigger to argue” (68); and, when he ascertains Jim's grief over being parted from his family, Huck muses wonderingly, “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white people does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so” (131). Through his physical journey, Huck literally leaves behind Miss Watson, the Grangerfords, and the duke and dauphin—who, Huck declares, make him “ashamed of the human race” (137)—as representatives of society's restrictiveness, hypocrisy, and racism. He only fulfills his spiritual quest, however, when he also rejects the moral values his society embodies by allowing Jim to share his flight to freedom. Although he is shocked and ashamed to find himself a “nigger-stealer,” Huck bravely resolves to “go to hell” if he must in order to help his friend. The plight of the runaway slave is thus cast in terms of the Adamic myth: Jim, like Huck, must leave family and community behind to find freedom.

In a revision of the quest tradition, Ellen resolves her relationship with Starletta not by sharing a flight to freedom, but by sharing her home. Equally as important as the physical nurturance her new mama offers Ellen is her unhesitating welcome for Starletta:

My new mama says sure Starletta can come stay with us …

Have you ever felt like you could cry because you know you just heard the most important thing anybody in the world could have spoke at that second? … All that mattered in my world at that second was my new mama and the sound of yes in my ears oh yes Starletta is welcome here.


Ellen's preparation for Starletta's arrival is a series of domestic rituals: she cleans the house, has her new mama embroider Starletta's initials on a set of towels, and gives instructions about the supper menu. When Starletta arrives, Ellen shares with her her favorite activity: lying on the bed in her room, waiting for dinner. “I will lay here too and wait for supper beside a girl that every rule in the book says I should not have in my house much less laid still and sleeping beside me,” Ellen muses. “I came a long way to get here but when you think about it real hard you will see that old Starletta came even farther” (125–26). The fulfillment of Ellen's quest is thus located both in home and in family—a family defined neither by blood ties nor by race, but by love and care.

The conclusion of each text highlights Twain's and Gibbons's differing versions of the spiritual quest fulfilled. At the end of his journey, Huck “light[s] out for the Territory,” thus signifying that the hero's quest can only be fulfilled in the flight from home and community. Ellen Foster's journey, however, is one she is happy to abandon when she arrives at her new mama's home: “I have laid in my bed many many days since that first afternoon I heard her in the kitchen and I am always as glad to rest as I was then” (120). Ellen signifies her integration into this domestic life by signing her school papers with a new name:

That may not be the name God or my mama gave me but that is my name now. Ellen Foster. … Before I even met Stella or Jo Jo or the rest of them I heard they were the Foster family. Then I moved in the house and met everybody and figured it was OK to make my name like theirs. Something told me I might have to change it legal or at church but I was hoping I could slide by the law and folks would think I came by the name natural after a while.


In choosing her name, Ellen again rejects the authority of both the courts and the church. Her new name signifies instead the authority of her own experience: no longer alone in the world, nor the daughter of an abusive father, she belongs to a loving home of her own choosing.

The quest myth that dominates the American literary canon, shaped by male psychology and male social position, reflects both the desire for separation and the freedom to choose autonomy from home, family, and community. As Baym suggests, this paradigm illuminates a central American myth regarding the relationship of the individual to society:

The myth narrates a confrontation of the American individual, the pure American self divorced from specific social circumstances, with the promise offered by the idea of America. The promise is the deeply romantic one that in this new land, untrammeled by history and social accident, a person will be able to achieve complete self-definition. Behind this promise is the assurance that individuals come before society, that they exist in some meaningful sense prior to, and apart from, societies in which they happen to find themselves. The myth also holds that, as something artificial and secondary to human nature, society exerts an unmitigatedly destructive pressure on individuality.


Although female characters are largely excluded from this quest tradition, however, they are not excluded from spiritual experience in literary texts.3 In Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons revises the spiritual quest paradigm by suggesting that transcendent experience may be located not only in an uninhabited wilderness, but in the midst of family and community. In Gibbons's text, the flight from home is an exhausting and terrifying journey; home, by contrast, offers both physical and spiritual safety. By treating home as sacred space, Ellen Foster—as well as numerous texts by Willa Cather, Harriette Arnow, Eudora Welty, Ellen Glasgow, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and others—redefines spirituality based on women's experience of domestic life and their valuing of affiliation and community. Female characters in these works seek transcendence not in male myths of freedom and wilderness, but in the familiar terrain of women's domestic lives.


  1. See Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, and Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Study of Gender. For a discussion of masculinity as the norm in the psychological theories of Freud, Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, and other researchers, see Gilligan, chapter 1, “Woman's Place in Man's Life Cycle.” In Toward a New Psychology of Women, Jean Baker Miller argues that the very idea of male separation is a myth which gains its power not through its truth, but through its prescriptive quality: “Few men ever attain such self-sufficiency, as every woman knows. They are usually supported by numbers of wives, mistresses, mothers, daughters, secretaries, nurses, and others. … Thus, there is reason to question whether this model accurately reflects men's lives. Its goals, however, are held out for all, and are seen as the preconditions for mental health” (437).

  2. Scholars in a number of disciplines have commented on women's experience of time as cyclical rather than linear, often in connection with their experience of domesticity. In The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework, theologian Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi writes, “Though we know better, we often act as though linear, quantifiable time (associated with questing) were given in nature. … Though our subjective experiences of time vary, nonetheless we tend to assume that there is some sort of temporal sequence ‘out there,’ apart from ourselves. This kind of time that we assume is ‘out there’ we describe as historic, meaning that it is progressive and nonrepeatable, having a forward motion like the flow of a river … it is useful to see how a rough distinction between linear and mythic time reflects differences in traditional masculine and feminine time experiences. Women's housebound time is typically characterized by amorphousness or circularity or both …” (145–46). In Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience, Bettina Aptheker describes women's lives as “fragmented and dispersed,” “episodic,” … “they are often determined by events outside of women's control. … Women are continually interrupted” (39). In The Reproduction of Mothering, sociologist Nancy Chodorow writes that women's domestic activities have a “nonbounded quality. They consist, as countless housewives can attest and as women poets, novelists, and feminist theorists have described, of diffuse obligations … the work of maintenance and reproduction is characterized by its repetitive and routine continuity, and does not involve a specified sequence of progression” (179).

  3. In Women and Spirituality, Carol Ochs points out that the concept of spiritual quest as a flight from domestic and communal life pervades Western theology as well as psychology and literature: “The image of the journey permeates the classics of Western spirituality. The notion of a journey with a well-marked itinerary permeates psychology as well … both presuppose a linear progression with later stages that are valued more highly than earlier ones. … The adoption of the journey model carries with it the view that part of our life has value and meaning only insofar as it contributes to the goal of the journey. Living in itself is not considered intrinsically valuable—the only value is in the goal we supposedly long to achieve” (24). This emphasis on quest in patriarchal theology has resulted in a “landscape of the sacred” in which, theologian Elizabeth Dodson Gray writes, only “[a] few places, a few people, a few occasions are seen to concentrate and to embody the holy … The only moments in time which become hallowed by an aura of holiness are those which involve these places, these people, these texts and these acts. The rest of life is perceived as a vast desert of the mundane, the unholy” (2).

    While traditional Western theology tends to view sacred experience as separate from ordinary, earthly experience, feminist theology emphasizes the presence of the sacred embodied in earthly experience. Feminist theology views personal experience not as trivial or mundane, but as an authoritative source of spiritual revelation. Unlike patriarchal theology, which establishes a few places and activities as realms of the sacred, feminist theology locates the sacred in ordinary experience. The root of theology, feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether writes in Sexism and God-Talk, is “codified collective human experience … Experience includes experience of the divine, experience of oneself, and experience of the community and the world, in an interacting dialectic” (12). Traditional theologies, however, have dismissed those who create their own religious myths as heretics. “Theologians are ignorant of what every anthropologist knows,” Naomi Goldenberg writes, “—i.e., that the forms of our thought derive from the forms of our culture” (115). Feminist theologians are thus distinctive in recognizing what Ruether terms “codified, collective human experience” as an authoritative source of spiritual truth. The fact that the kinds of experiences that have been “collected” and “codified” in Western culture have been almost exclusively male, however, has resulted in a male-centered theology. If women's daily lives are radically different from those of men, then their perceptions of divinity and transcendence will be shaped by those experiences, emerging as a distinctively female spirituality.

Works Cited

Aptheker, Bettina. Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989.

Baym, Nina. “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors.” The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 63–80.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Gibbons, Kaye. Ellen Foster. 1987. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Goldenberg, Naomi. Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions. Boston: Beacon P, 1979.

Gray, Elizabeth Dodson. Sacred Dimensions of Women's Experience. Wellesley: Roundtable P, 1988.

Levy, Helen Fiddyment. Fiction of the Home Place: Jewett, Cather, Glasow, Porter, Welty, and Naylor. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1993.

Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.

Miller, Jean Baker. Toward a New Psychology of Women. Boston: Beacon P, 1976.

Ochs, Carol. Women and Spirituality. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983.

Rabuzzi, Kathryn Allen. The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework. New York: Seabury P, 1982.

Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.

Ruether, Rosemary. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon P, 1983

Twain, Mark [Samuel Clemens]. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Henry Nash Smith. Boston: Houghton, 1958.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. San Diego: Harcourt, 1929.

Sharon Monteith (essay date April 1999)

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SOURCE: “Between Girls: Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster and Friendship as a Monologic Formulation,” in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, April, 1999, pp. 45-64.

[In the following essay, Monteith studies how the structure of Gibbons's Ellen Foster as a monologue affects the presentation of the relationship between Ellen and Starletta, demonstrating how Ellen's first-person narration essentially robs Starletta of her own voice in the novel.]


In the work of contemporary writers who explore the racial and social geography of growing up in the American South, fleeting encounters between white and black girls abound but enduring friendships prove to be more problematic to represent.1 In Ellen Foster (1987), Ellen and Starletta's association stretches across the novel whereas, most frequently in fictions, the points at which black and white women converge and relate tend to be brief and transient, as in Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) where a heavily pregnant and fugitive Sethe is aided by poor white Amy; or in Thulani Davis's 1959 (1992) where the brief kindness of a white woman is remembered as a significant, if fleeting gesture. I wish to raise questions about the ways in which cross-racial childhood relationships are represented formally and aesthetically. There is often an understandable but troubling literary–critical impasse whereby black girls are contained within the first-person narrations of white protagonists which, whilst explicating the connection between the girls, risk engulfing or subsuming the black “best friend.” I shall examine the ways in which this may be the inevitable result of the Bildungsroman form and consider how the representation of the cross-racial friendship at the heart of Ellen Foster is modified in direct correspondence to the novel's structuring.

Landscapes of childhood are received rather than chosen, and contemporary writers often explore the ways in which the young black and white girls gravitate towards friendships with each other but become victims of the structuring of the Southern societies the novels seek to reflect. Their roles are important as markers of the boundaries Southern society sought to maintain and to stabilize via childhood identity formation under racial segregation. Ruth Frankenberg's recent study sees the “social geographies of race” as the organizing principle of the childhoods of the white American women she interviews for whom unofficial demarcations according to race still persisted, wherever and whenever they grew up. This is an examination of racial geography which refers to the “racial and ethnic mapping of a landscape in physical terms, and enables also a beginning sense of the conceptual mapping of self and other with respect to race operating in white women's lives.”2

This facet of Southern culture in particular fascinates writers; there are a number of autobiographies and memoirs in which writers explore childhood friendships within the crucible of race and segregation. Lynn Bloom has described race as that “touchy subject … that permeates twentieth-century southern childhood autobiographies and distinguishes them, as a group, from other American childhood autobiographies.”3 The “touchy subject” is also inescapable in fictions that seek to testify to and explore the searing effect racial division could have on young girls in the South. There is a marked propensity in fiction and film to fix representations of cross-racial relationships of all types in earlier decades when social roles were fixed and black characters had little space to manoeuvre outside an established paradigmatic formulation (white child/black nurse; white mistress/black domestic; white employer/black chauffeur).4

The meeting between a white girl and a black girl in contemporary fiction is frequently represented as a profound and meaningful encounter, an epiphany. It is this propensity that seems to underpin most fictional delineations of cross-racial childhood associations. Dorothy Allison, in Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), and Nanci Kincaid, in Crossing Blood (1994), each delineate Southern landscapes of childhood and pursue the idea of cross-racial relationships as transgressive.5 For their young white girl protagonists, meeting with a young black girl constitutes an epiphanic moment, a moment that carries much in terms of the text's meanings as it illuminates the white girl's progress towards adult understanding. Meaningful as the affiliation may be, however, such a relationship cannot and does not endure in either novel. In Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons relies upon such binary oppositions in order to explore in a more developed way the relationship between Ellen and Starletta. Starletta is Ellen Foster's only friend, but she is firmly fixed as auxiliary to Ellen since Ellen is driven by an intensely personal quest to re-establish family and order in her life. The reader is appalled by the situation Ellen finds herself in, compelled to follow her quest to find a new and safe home for herself, and admires the pragmatic determination with which she intends to achieve her ends. This is the basis of the reader's engagement with Ellen's personal narrative. In her monologue, she recognizes how the adult world will judge her association with her black friend and she begins, consciously and systematically, to differentiate herself from Starletta at every turn. Disorder has ruled Ellen's life; her family falls apart, her home becomes unsafe as her drunken father lurches around it, so Ellen concerns herself with order and cleanliness and fixes Starletta as her opposite in order to judge what those characteristics might be. Starletta is inextricably linked into the dialectic of order and cleanliness versus disorder and dirt that preoccupies Ellen. Her first comment on seeing Starletta in the church at her mother's funeral focuses in on this most precisely: “I see Starletta and she looks clean” is immediately followed by the statement “Starletta and her mama both eat dirt.”6 Her observations bespeak a social conditioning, according to Southern design, whereby poor white people learned to differentiate themselves at any and every level from poor black people.

In contemporary fiction, white girls are frequently fascinated with their black counterparts and pursue connections with them even under the strictures of segregation and even when rebuffed. But the constraints placed upon cross-racial childhood friendships are perhaps best exemplified in the much earlier autobiographical writings of Lillian Smith (1897–1966) who interrogated the ideological apparatus that tried to ensure that friendships that crossed “the color line” would be dissolved when the girls reached the threshold of adulthood and introduction into their appropriately different places in Southern societies. In 1943, before the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, Lillian Smith spoke out against racial segregation and exposed the detrimental impact of post-Reconstruction controls upon black and white children. She spoke of her own childhood in the 1900s specifically, but also of systems still in effect at the time of her speech:

No colored child in our country, however protected within the family, is being given today what his personality needs in order to mature fully and richly. No white child, under the segregation pattern, North or South, can be free of arrogance, hardness of heart, blindness to human needs. The bitter and inescapable fact is that our children in America, white and colored, are growing distorted, twisted personalities within the frame of this segregation which our fears and frustrations have imposed upon them.7

Smith spoke out forcefully against the “frame of segregation” in her speeches, and much of her autobiographical Killers of the Dream (1949) is dedicated to explicating and exposing the false sanctity of white skin that was inculcated into children in the Georgia of her youth.8 One incident in particular that Smith “forgot” for more than thirty years is wrenched into comprehension. It concerns a little white girl who is discovered living in “Colored Town” and is removed by the white townsfolk, with the aid of the town marshal, from a black family who are deemed “ignorant and dirty and sick-looking colored folks,” and who must have kidnapped her. She goes to live with young Lillian's family and the two become firm friends until it is realized that, despite her white skin, Janie is “colored” and must be returned. She will not be allowed over to play, and the dictate that “white and colored people do not live together” is played out to emotional effect in both girls' lives; Lillian feels guilty at having broken a clear social taboo by sharing her bed and her friendship with a girl who she discovers is black. She shuns her:

And like a slow poison, it began to seep through me: I was white. She was colored. We must not be together. It was bad to be together. Though you ate with your nurse when you were little, it was bad to eat with any colored person after that.9

Young Lillian and Janie share an intimacy that is subsequently shattered and distorted and even obliterated from Lillian's memory in the need to adhere to the racial geography of her day.10

The girls have engaged in a border crossing which, if it is allowed to continue, will destabilize and disrupt the map of social relations for which they are to be prepared. The episode Smith recounts is especially powerful in its playing out of the “rules” and the “frame” of segregation. After the social structure was legally dismantled, it remained the case that it was deemed reasonable, even natural, that black and white children should play together pre-school. It was the onset of adolescence which marked the point after which their intimacy should be dissolved.11 This “sorting,” entrusted to the institutional jurisprudence of schools, proved insidious but effective and largely unassailable. The girls are manoeuvred out of particular friendships as a result of the inflexibility of racial and social biases.

It is, indeed, striking that white writers who have deemed cross-racial childhood connections significant, in that they have chosen to represent them in their fictions, have simultaneously often left the black girl unvoiced and inactive in the encounter. One writer who does explore a relationship in which both parties strive to be vocal and actively equal participants is Susan Richards Shreve in A Country of Strangers (1990). A short consideration of this novel may help to quantify exactly how it is that the friendship in Ellen Foster remains stifled and trapped within its structure. It may also serve to illuminate the fact that, whether couched in a monologic or dialogic framework, interracial childhood friendships typically do not endure beyond childhood in contemporary fictions, whatever their form. The two novels are structured very differently, but the problems that arise in maintaining a cross-racial friendship beyond childhood association are present in each. Shreve locates a childhood friendship as one interracial connection amidst many, but she features it centrally; in fact, it is the closest the novel comes to positing a successful cross-racial alliance.

Kate and Prudential meet in Northern Virginia in 1942, and their encounters are mediated through a third-person omniscient narrator who assesses each character's motives and feelings, whereas, in Gibbons' novel, Ellen may only assess her own. The girls' relationship begins in unequivocal aggression and antagonism and Shreve retains a startlingly clear image of their differences, whilst manoeuvring Kate and Prudential towards recognition of the elements that connect their lives. Kate immediately detects Prudential's hatred of her as representative of “white girls.” The hatred is translated into a succinct and memorable incident in which Prudential, feeling a profound urge to spit at Kate, decides to urinate on her instead. She pees from way up in an elm tree, “a long thin stream, straight as a pencil through the branches. Bulls eyes on top of her silky hair.”12 It is, in the scuffle that follows, Kate who spits in Prudential's face. Prudential describes this fight as a “conversation” and it is represented as the most honest exchange that the girls can muster in the first instance. Prudential is thirteen, pregnant by her father and angry. Only when Kate is abused at school by a boy who forces her head towards his erection, and she spontaneously confides the incident to Prudential, is their friendship “sealed.” Prudential does not reciprocate with her own experience of abuse, but her shocked “I had no idea that kind of misfortune could happen to a white girl” (p. 111) belies her conditioning, historical and cultural. The white girl may have similar problems.

The girls are edged into contiguous and unforeseen symmetry: “Their bodies touched along the arms and thighs, their bony knees aligned as if such order in presentation were intentional” (p. 110). Shreve patterns their commonality into each evocation of their daily lives in an interracial household in which they are the only members to overlook difference in favour of cohesion: they lunch together, sit closely side by side, and exchange secrets, except for the one alluding to the father of Prudential's baby. Their circumstances are not the same, but their desire to be friends is mutual, for much of the novel. It has been said of Shreve's work in general that, “When her characters are not making grand gestures or being quietly introspective, they are usually talking with each other, most often interpreting and evaluating each other's lives.”13 This general tendency is significantly abridged in the case of Kate and Prudential's reciprocity in that actions figure more than words; just as their first fight was a “conversation,” so they go on to demonstrate their mutual support in deeds and actions. Kate buys Prudential a dress as a mark of appreciation and Prudential fights Kate's battle with the schoolboy oppressor on her behalf, exacting revenge in a secondhand retaliation for her own as well as her friend's sexual distress. On only one occasion, and very untypically, does Prudential underline their equitable camaraderie in words: “It's like we were born together, halved out of the same eggshell” (p. 129); the image serves to conjure up the fragility and precariousness of an association such as theirs in rural Virginia in the 1940s. Their friendship gradually slips over into a memory, and the depths they plumbed over Kate's problems are never repeated and so a wall of silence is quietly but significantly erected between them by the close of the novel.

Kate and Prudential exemplify a spirited endeavour to elicit honesty and comfort from a cross-racial childhood friendship, but theirs barely persists beyond the age of thirteen. However, a writer may choose to structure her novel—as Bildungsroman or melodrama, through a dominant central character and voice, or in short narrative passages or scenes that coalesce as an exploration of relationships—the outcome tends to be the same when one focuses directly on the cross-racial childhood relationship. Very few withstand social or indeed personal pressures or remain as close, if they persist at all beyond adolescence, as they clearly had the potential to be in childhood. In Meridian (1976), set in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and which engages with lost hopes and failed coalitions, Alice Walker has Meridian's grandmother declare that in all her life she has “never known a white woman she liked after the age of twelve.”14 In fact, writers do not tend to push much beyond the onset of adolescence, fixing the girls within a framework that reinscribes the repeated breakdown of cross-racial friendships or never allows them to become truly dialogic encounters in the first place.


In Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons inscribes the girls' social experiences as racially different, their futures as ultimately separate, and their friendships as almost impossible to maintain. The structuring of the text separates the girls and keeps them separate, despite their friendship. Black girls are often framed and constrained within the white protagonists' first-person narratives in Bildungsromans or biographical novels; and this form of narration, typically featuring a single narrating voice, fixes the black girl as auxiliary, as an emblem to signify a stage (or stages) in the white protagonist's personal development and rites of passage. The first-person narrated Bildungsroman, described by Richard Gray as one of the South's “familiar regional narrative types and structures,” is also a monologic form that silences other voices that might otherwise disrupt the monologue or deviate from its flow.15 The Bildungsroman has, of course, also been judged one of the most bourgeois of novelistic forms; classically realist, it privileges the individual, eponymous in this case, her psychology, and her character to the extent that Catherine Belsey has stated that “character, unified and coherent, is the source of action.”16 Kaye Gibbons unfixes some of the conventions of the form in her depiction of a poor white girl whose class and language clearly set her outside of a bourgeois formulation.

Nevertheless, the Bildungsroman structure envelops the speaking protagonist in a kind of impermeable membrane and functions to divert the reader's attention away from characters who are positioned on the outside. This means that the black friend is not recognized with a space for speech as she could be in a heteroglossic text in which more than one social discourse is represented. It is not the emphasis on Ellen's development that is disturbing, but the inclusion of Starletta as an apparently major spur, whilst rendering her mute and muted in the novel in all circumstances. She never becomes a speaking subject. This results in the aporia, or internal contradiction, in the text, that I read as the gap between the friendship, clearly present in the novel, and the organization of the novel as a monologue which severely limits the representation of that friendship.

The disjunction between white and black characters in a text that can be read as based on an axis of friendship constitutes what I shall call a “fault line” in the text. This fault line splinters the friendship, since the friendship is ultimately only the casing or framework according to which the content of the text may be said to operate. Potential difficulties arise in fiction about women, as well as in feminist praxis, as a result of epistemological standpoints intrinsic in different “feminist” positions. Cross-racial co-operation, apparently of representative importance in contemporary feminist thought, and to the novel under discussion here, risks being undermined by set literary structures and paradigms deployed in the construction of black characters and in representations of black voices that inevitably function to segregate or “other” them, even to silence them completely. Gibbons creates a white girl whose epistemology derives from segregated situations but for whom even a radical ideological breakthrough of the kind she undergoes in the novel is contained within a narrative structure that, whilst it necessarily privileges her, denies agency to the “other” character on the friendship axis, Starletta. No matter what Ellen may think or feel about her friend at the end of the novel, the monologue form cannot disclose the voice or “I” of Starletta since Ellen is the only developed subject of the text and it is her evolving consciousness that prevails.

It is generally the case that Kaye Gibbons writes novels in the form of first-person monologues since her intention is to create Southern women characters who will appear to tell their own stories. She has indicated that she begins

her conceptualization of a work with character and voice, not with plot and abstract ideas … In her writing, interior experience is more important than surface experience, and language is the important interpretative mechanism for bringing that to the reader, even concerning memories of surface experience.17

For “surface experience” I understand social actions and interactions, and the “abstract ideas” mentioned here I read as political as well as philosophical and existential considerations. In this her first novel, it is particularly the case that details of region and society receive attention only so far as Ellen chooses to articulate her child's understanding of wider issues. Ultimately, whatever does or does not transpire in the novel is circumscribed by Ellen, as Gibbons has her rationalize herself as an autonomous and coherent self. This is clear from the sheer number of times that Ellen repeats the phrase “my own self” so central to her idiom and idiolect. Her monologue is the self-analysis that her child psychologist tries unsuccessfully every Tuesday at school to extract from her. In this way, Gibbons leaves little room for the interactions, dramatic confrontations, and emotional and violent exchanges that may be enacted in a more melodramatic text.

Ellen Foster is a self-celebratory monologue in the voice of a child who has not yet fully discovered that human experience is necessarily dialogic and collaboratory. Ellen's monologue has, to employ Bakhtinian terms, a “centripetal” and a “monologic” imperative and force in which Starletta's silence is as necessary as it is disquieting. It is hard for Ellen to consider anyone else in any depth whilst she is in the process of self-formation, as is indicated when she takes the name Foster, a new name (the reader is never made aware of her family name). Ellen mistakes the term “foster family” for the family name of her “new mama” and appropriates it as a signal of her wish to cut the ties with her old life and with a “worn-out” name in order to make herself anew. The link she preserves with Starletta is really the sole connection she actively seeks to maintain with her old lifestyle; Starletta is her chosen and designated “other.”

Ellen begins to reconcile herself to her own illogicalities in the way that Elizabeth Abel has discussed in another context when she notes that to (re)construct a friend is to (re)view the self so that the friend acts as an alter ego that “refines and clarifies the narrator's self-image.”18 In the final pages of the novel, Gibbons dramatizes the complex negotiations of racial social geography in which Ellen is involved, but solely in terms of Ellen's character. Starletta is sidelined even in the final pages and her silence remains unsatisfactory. Gibbons has implied that she was unaware of this factor until she got to the end of the book and “realized she hadn't talked.” Significantly, though, rather than interrogate the motivation behind this feature of the text, and its effects, as Ellen Douglas does openly in Can't Quit You Baby (1988), Gibbons provides a get-out that legitimates as it disclaims:

I said, “Kaye, you've got to say why this girl has not said a word and I said, well she stutters and doesn't like to talk.” I took care of that real quickly.19

Shirley M. Jordan, interviewing Gibbons, does not pursue the issue, but effectively disabling Starletta, disempowering an already disempowered character, does not “take care” of the discomfort and disappointment this reader feels in having Starletta simply act as a silent witness and accomplice to Ellen's most forceful engagement with life. In Ellen, Gibbons creates a character whose strength, vitality, and creative good sense go some considerable way towards undermining a tenacious image of a “poor white” girl as hopeless, but her creation of Ellen's black counterpart is all the more disappointing as a result. Starletta remains a plot function in spite of Gibbons's general engagement with issues of race and representation in her work.20

A more theoretical focus on the constitution of the subject is described by Tzvetan Todorov in his elaboration of Bakhtin's aesthetic of otherness. For Bakhtin, self-consciousness as consciousness of self can only be realized “through another and with another's help,” for:

every internal experience occurs on the border, it comes across another, and this essence resides in this intense encounter … Man has no internal sovereign territory; he is all and always on the boundary; looking within himself, he looks in the eyes of the other or through the eyes of the other.21

These ideas include the condition of self-existence as reliant on the other, so that existence becomes dialogical in principle. Bakhtin is interested in the writer or artist's relation to the characters he or she creates, but here I foreground the interrelationship between characters in an application of Bakhtin's ideas, in order to clarify how a novel that ostensibly values the mutuality and interdependency of friendship can nevertheless remain monologic in form by denying dialogue. In Bakhtinian terms:

Ultimately monologism denies that there exists outside of it another consciousness, with the same rights, and capable of responding on an equal footing, another and equal I … The monologue is accomplished and deaf to the other's response; it does not await it and does not grant it any decisive force. Monologue makes do without the other; that is why to some extent it objectivizes all reality. Monologue pretends to be the last word.22

Extrapolating from Bakhtin, I would argue that a monologic outlook dominates Ellen Foster; not simply as a result of Gibbons's own acknowledgement that Starletta's voice was of no particular concern, but as evidenced in the formal structuring of the novel itself. Starletta is finally little more than a device circumscribed by a monologic textual exploration of the protagonist. In his application of Bakhtinian ideas to popular cultural products that apparently seek to promote white and black racial harmony in America, Robert Stam points out the dangers of “pseudo-polyphonic” discourses whereby certain voices are disempowered because they are marginalized, so that the “dialogue” that takes place is really between a voiced individual and a “puppet-like entity that has already been forced to make crucial compromises.”23

In many ways, Starletta is the puppet in the text, whose reality is objectivized. Starletta figures only as a component in a series of elements in Ellen's life that she is trying to fix in some order. The picaresque quality of their encounters as nodal points in a linear model bears this out. The construction of Starletta's character and of her silence comes perilously close to the construction of African-American characters as foils in an “American” literary tradition as noted by Toni Morrison, and by Ralph Ellison before her. If Starletta's silence is read as accommodation, she becomes an accommodating black presence in the novel. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison describes black characters operating as a “control group” in a white American literary experiment and in the formation of white American national culture. Her idea can be extended in an analysis of the black characters in Gibbons's novel as they operate in Ellen's reformulation of her personal identity. For Morrison:

Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfilment of destiny.24

Morrison discusses nineteenth- and early twentieth-century texts as the language of her analogies indicates; ideas of individualism and freedom were inextricable from those of oppression and slavery, but Ellen Foster has frequently been compared with Huckleberry Finn, and its philosophy is distinctly Emersonian. Ellen's idiosyncratic first-person narrative commentary is replete with Southern speech patterns reminiscent of Huck's, and the motif of self-reliance so strong in Twain's novel is clearly present in Gibbons's, from the epigraph from “Self-Reliance” to the end of the novel. Both Huck and Ellen escape alcoholic and abusive fathers and are orphaned but, whereas Huck “suffered” the informal maternalism of the Widow Douglas and Aunt Sally, Ellen is immediately tied into the decisions of Court Welfare hearings and regular monitoring by an educational psychologist. Despite the obvious differences in context, the course Ellen is set upon in the novel involves her primarily in a progressive articulation of her own identity, and Starletta is, like Jim for Huck, the only other character present throughout the text who services this end. Gibbons is clearly aware of the American literary tradition, most clearly explicated by Leslie Fiedler, in which African Americans and Native Americans have functioned as subordinate and peripheral “sidekicks” to white individualistic protagonists. In Ellen Foster, she retains the basis of this binary intact as she negotiates such a relationship for her protagonist.


In Ellen Foster, the speaking protagonist records the period of her childhood in which she begins to identify herself as separate from her parents and as an active force in shaping both her environment and her future in the contemporary South. Starletta, her black friend, is the only character featured throughout the text who remains a constant presence despite the changes in Ellen's life. Ellen's mother's suicide precipitates Ellen's advance into the wider world, and Starletta is present at Ellen's mother's funeral at the beginning of the book; she is the first and the only person from Ellen's former life to visit once Ellen has established herself in a new foster home. But Ellen's efforts to lift herself out of what she understands to have been an ill-starred start in life quickly become indivisible from what she deems the clearest means of demonstrating herself to be a young lady of clean habits and reasonable, moderate behaviour: she sets herself directly against what she deems to be the “standards” of the black members of the Southern community in which she resides. Not only does Ellen seek to restore what order and routine she experienced whilst her mother was alive, she also embarks upon a related quest to ascertain her individual needs. Simultaneously, she discovers that she and Starletta are united by more than what divides them, and she wishes to maintain their connection in the new life she is in the process of mapping for herself: “I feel like she grew behind my back and when I think about her now I want to press my hands to her to stop her from growing into a time she will not want to play” (p. 97). This realization is slow in coming, but it forms the trajectory of what is clearly a friendship plot. Prior to this discovery, the novel is punctuated by scenes in which Ellen expresses her wish to fit herself into quite conventional images of girlhood. With the intention to become a Girl Scout, Ellen signals her desire for a new and widely acceptable image. Her full school uniform is a source of pride and satisfaction as it marks her out as a “good” student.

Much of the time Ellen is groping towards a new identity, even though she couches her intentions in highly conformist terms, and her narration is cluttered with concerns about the impression she makes on others. Ellen invests time and effort in herself, as made manifest in her attention to clothes and the outward presentation of self, but her determination to reassert herself in this way does not leave much time to devote to her own psychological recovery from the traumas that beset her, or to consider the meaning of her friendship with Starletta. This would involve considerable self-scrutiny and Ellen's unceasing and, at times, breathless monologue belies a concerted effort to be outwardly self-confident rather than inwardly self-searching. Her bid to create a coherent sense of self, the express goal of the Bildungsroman form, excludes a more open and problematic engagement with the facets of her character that are not immediately assimilable into this particular discourse of the self.

Ellen's prejudices and judgements about black people are disclosed along with her other feelings: Starletta is her friend but she will not eat in Starletta's home nor will she drink from the family's utensils, despite having decided that they live “regular”—her shorthand for “like white folks.” Her joy at the Christmas present she receives from them is redoubled with “Oh my God it is a sweater. I like it so much. I do not tell a story when I say it does not look colored at all” (p. 38). These and other indicators clarify the chasm that separates her own place in society from Starletta's, despite the way this directly contradicts her personal experiences. Ellen feels that her most safe and comfortable retreat is the black family's home. She escapes there on the occasion when her drunken father mistakes her for her dead mother in the dark and she sleeps there in security, the like of which she has never experienced at home or when forced to stay with her own grandmother.

Initially, I felt that Gibbons might be working to create a different effect—or misprision—in her codification of race relations from that created in much previous American literature where the white protagonist is mirrored or shadowed by a black companion. The reader is encouraged in the belief that Ellen's sharp and pragmatic self-reliance is her most valuable asset. For the most part, she demonstrates an uncanny ability to slice through hypocrisy and etiquette and to catch people in a few words, as can be seen in her debunking of psychoanalysis and the court system. She disdains the child psychologist's tentative explanations that she may be suffering from “identity problems” following the traumas of her early life: “I hate to tell him he's wrong because you can tell it took him a long time to make up his ideas. And the worst part is I can see he believes them” (p. 103). Similarly, the studied homilies of the judge who presides over the case for Ellen's guardianship are recognized for what they are; Ellen astutely reconciles the illogicality of his decisions in such a way as to preserve herself from the full force of their impact on her life:

What do you do when the judge talks about the family society's cornerstone but you know yours was never a Roman pillar but is and always has been crumbly old brick? I was in my seat frustrated like when my teacher makes a mistake on the chalkboard and it will not do any good to tell her because so quick she can erase it all and on to the next problem.

He had us all mixed up with a different group of folks.

(p. 66)

Despite such perspicacity, Gibbons shows that the social etiquette of race relations is much more difficult for Ellen to penetrate. She has Ellen revise her assumptions and come to understand that the criteria she employed to judge a black family as inferior was mistaken. But, finally, I do not think that the codification of the primary relationship differs significantly from paradigmatic depictions in earlier novels. In fact, Ellen refers to Starletta as “the baby” for much of this novel and describes her as “hers,” almost as a doll might be hers to keep and to love. Starletta is a kind of talisman for Ellen, certainly a touchstone in the sense of a comfortable place that she can return to at points on her journey of self-discovery and in her monologue. Each time the two meet there are examples of Ellen's tendency to feel that she may “own” her black “buddy”: at the cinema, “Starletta was the only colored girl at the movies and she was mine” (p. 60); on the bus, “I need to tell the driver first thing that I'll be having a extra passenger on board this afternoon. She'll be getting off at my house. She's colored but don't act like you notice. And she'll be sitting right up front with me. And she'll be getting off at my house” (p. 142).

There are other black characters who are minimally drawn and who form part of Ellen's environment. Initially, they seem simply auxiliary figures playing “bit parts” but they come to serve most importantly as an alternative locus for Ellen's desires for home and security. Starletta's parents are only an extension of Starletta, unnamed and described solely in terms of what they do for Ellen. They are a collective presence, but when Ellen goes to live with her grandmother and is set to work in her cotton fields, she meets Mavis, one of the cotton pickers, and she spies on black homes and communal homelife from the bottom of “colored lane” with a half-acknowledged loneliness and envy. Her homelessness is the key to Ellen's mire of conflicting emotions, her psychological and existential predicament, the predicament she refuses to confront beyond her pragmatic assessment of her own needs. She comes to know Mavis who protects her from the heavier work and who confides that Ellen's mother was her childhood friend and that she knew her “good as I know my own self” (p. 76). Although the pairing of the young white girl and older black woman lasts only a short while, it would seem to have a specific bearing on Ellen's reassessment of her own position with regard to Starletta, and Ellen's dawning apprehension that a “home” is of limited value if unsupported by wider social affiliations that can help to make it a shared space rather than a lonely sanctuary.

By the end of the novel, Ellen feels the need to “straighten out” things between herself and Starletta so they can become “even friends” within the space of her new home, but this “evening out” does not include the need for dialogue with her friend since Starletta's speech is never represented. Ellen does begin to seek physical intimacy with her friend rather than disdain it, “I wonder if Starletta would let me take a bath with her” (p. 141) and she sings her name inside her head all morning looking forward to Starletta's weekend sleep-over. The language certainly registers love and desire, but Starletta is clearly the object of Ellen's affections. Ellen, Gibbons makes clear, is awakening to the wonderment and significance of a friendship from which she has derived comfort whilst denying its full import in her world, and in so doing she begins to desegregate her mind and her understanding but fails to dismantle the strategies of containment via which she has embodied Starletta. Consequently, there would seem to be a tension between the form of Bildungsroman and the idea of representing a cross-racial friendship within it, particularly when, for her author, Ellen is “a child who thinks first and then feels.”25

Ellen makes what she affirms is a revolutionary gesture and statement about her friend; she has Starletta to stay in her home as a special guest when “every rule in the book says I should not have her in my house, much less laid still and sleeping by me” (p. 146). The novel ends on a clear note of social reconciliation, but it is primarily Ellen's reconciliation with her “own self” via Starletta, in a confession that facilitates an advance in Ellen's independent assessment of her life and her future but that does not permit response or debate:

Starletta I always thought I was special because I was white and when I thought about you being colored I said to myself it sure is a shame Starletta's colored. I sure would hate to be that way. … now I remember that they changed that rule. So it does not make any sense for me to feel like I'm breaking the law … if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it. It seems like the decent thing to do.

(p. 146)

The attitudinal shift has come about as a result of the accumulated experiences of living in a biracial community that Ellen undergoes in this picaresque tale; staying the night in Starletta's home and picking cotton in her grandmother's fields, for example. The reader is also reminded, during Ellen's “confession,” of Huck's “crisis of conscience” over slavery and over whether he should inform Miss Watson of the whereabouts of “her runaway nigger,” Jim. Where Huck confounds his sin with not upholding the codes of slavocracy, Ellen harbours no such paradoxical contradistinctions but, lightly ironic, Gibbons has Ellen luxuriate in the magnanimity and munificence that “integration” with Starletta brings to her sense of self by having her draw on the Civil War and on Civil Rights history to create an “ending” in the manner of the “old stories” (and Huckleberry Finn may be one of them) that Ellen loves to read. This is dryly done, but it nevertheless conforms to the convention of narrative “closure” that one expects in a classic realist format where the protagonist's maturation and self-discovery is “the end” and this “ending” forecloses on any further or deeper interaction with others.

It is disappointing, therefore, that despite the threshold of ideological understanding the character may be said to reach by the end of this Bildungsroman, and her belated acknowledgement that this is largely as a result of her friend, she still cannot see the importance of listening to Starletta, finding out what she thinks and might wish to say. In this I would disagree with Jay Clayton who reads Ellen Foster as a narrative of racial reconciliation and who asserts that “the plot culminates in Ellen's successful efforts to make amends for former slights to her best friend” (my emphasis).26 Clayton implies that the novel plays out its utopian possibilities, whereas I would argue that they are left unfulfilled and that the ending remains far too ambiguous to be a culmination of all the ideas raised by the plot.

Arguably, Starletta remains silent because the “text” to be read is Ellen herself and the textual lacunae in the representation of Starletta are the inevitable result of structuring the novel according to the principles of the Bildungsroman which serves, on the one hand, to emphasize and, on the other, to retreat from what I have termed the “friendship plot” or the “friendship axis” in Ellen Foster. The friendship is plotted along an axis, the line about which the figure of Ellen may be understood to revolve. The novel is plotted around the friendship that helps to co-ordinate the trajectory of Ellen's life and progress and this draws on the sense of alliance present in some definitions of the word “axis.” A friendship axis is clearly present and can be traced specifically via a series of nodal points in the girls' relationship that structure the writing as a developing friendship for Ellen: a Christmas spent together, shopping together, a visit to the cinema, and Starletta's visits to two of Ellen's foster homes. They go to the same school and, although in different classes, their connection is maintained, largely it seems because Ellen makes no particular friends in her own homeroom as Starletta does in hers. The childhood friendship operates strategically to point up the relationships between institutions like school and the Girl Scouts, small-town life and family life, that are such socially powerful forces against which the crises of friendship contend. This is especially the case for an interracial friendship when, for example, there is no integrated, or segregated, Girl Scout group for Starletta to attend.

Gibbons leaves Ellen Foster on the threshold of a new phase of development, but the subordination of Starletta in the text does not offer much in the way of hope for sisterly connection. If one wishes to detect hope for the association, nevertheless, it may be present in the way in which Ellen has come to realize that Starletta has an existence independent of her; she has her own friends and ideas and she may decide to drift away from their association, something Ellen intends to try to prevent by becoming an “even friend”:

something tells me inside that one of these days soon she will forget me. So I have to make a big very big good time with her that she will not forget … I know for a fact that I would not ever forget her but you can never be sure about how somebody else thinks about you except if they beat it into your head. At least that is how I am worried about Starletta who never has said much good or bad to me but before long I will have to know I am in her head like she is in mine. It is good to have a friend like her.

(p. 99)

This passage is unusual in a novel that focuses so exclusively on the protagonist; it shows Ellen as she begins to appreciate that Starletta acts independently outside and apart from herself, but it also remains typical in its self-involved emphasis on Ellen's own fears, observations, and needs. Ellen remains consistent in her utilization of Starletta as a standard against which she may measure her own progress; so even her invitation to Starletta to stay in her new home acts as a celebration of how far she has progressed or of how far her world may be differentiated from Starletta's, “she would think back on me and how she stayed in the white house all night with Ellen” (p. 99).

She says quite a lot towards the end of her monologue about her dawning understanding of the social order that kept her prejudices and assumptions in place and about the possibilities for a more open acknowledgement of differences across race. Certainly, Ellen has learned some important lessons about where she fits and where she may choose to place herself within a Southern scheme of social relations but, as the novel closes, she is resting comfortably in the image she has fashioned of her own magnanimity in reconciling her “new” carefully integrated self with Starletta. Finally, individualism overrides the friendship plot in Ellen Foster. The friendship plot informs the composition of the text but only so far as it helps to situate a “self-made” American individual on the threshold of a new phase in life.

The cross-racial childhood friendship in Southern literature about girls is a palimpsest wherein the complexities of race and gender may be collapsed into a single unitary relationship when the complexities begin to intersect with the young girls' lives. This is not to say that each representation is a social protest or reformist in some sense (Belva Plain's Crescent City (1984), for example, is clearly neither27) but rather that the history of segregation restricts representations of a childhood friendship that seek to incorporate realism in their form or credibility in their content. Toni Morrison has said that there is always something “more interesting at stake than a clear resolution in a novel” and, unlike Jay Clayton who feels there is a sense of culmination at the end of Ellen Foster, I believe that important ambiguities remain.28 It is left ambiguous as to whether Ellen's developing self should finally be understood as essentially self-reliant or whether her sense of identity owes much more to group experience and to a salient cross-racial friendship. Such ambiguities are the crux of Ellen's monologue and of her story.


  1. This article is a revision of the paper “Between Girls: Cross-racial Childhood Friendships in Contemporary Southern Narratives” delivered at the Society for the Study of Southern Literature 1996 Conference, 11–13 April 1996, Richmond, Virginia.

  2. Ruth Frankenberg, “Growing up White: Racism and the Social Geography of Childhood,” Feminist Review, 45 (Autumn 1993), 54–55.

  3. Lynn Z. Bloom, “Coming of Age in the Segregated South: Autobiographies of Twentieth-Century Childhoods, Black and White,” in J. Bill Berry, ed., Home Ground: Southern Autobiography (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 113.

  4. Examples include Corinna, Corinna (dir. Jessie Nelson, 1994) set in the 1950s which examines cross-racial relationships predominantly through the white child/black nurse formulation; The Long Walk Home (dir. Richard Pearce, 1990) in which the white mistress/black domestic relationship features in Alabama in the 1950s, and Driving Miss Daisy (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1989) in which a “friendship” between an elderly Jewish lady and her elderly black chauffeur is played out in Atlanta over twenty-five years.

  5. Nanci Kincaid, Crossing Blood (New York: Avon Books, 1994). Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina (London: Flamingo, 1993).

  6. Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988), 22. Subsequent references will be included in the text. Most reviewers have assumed the novel takes place in rural Nash County, North Carolina, the area in which Gibbons herself grew up, but particulars of place are not specified in the monologue.

  7. Lillian Smith, “Children and Color” in Michelle Cliff, ed., The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writings by Lilian Smith (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), 30.

  8. Joel Kovel would appear to support Smith's ideas: “if we are to study the existence in culture of a fantasy creation such as racism, it is to the infantile roots of mental experience that we must first turn.” See White Racism: A Psychohistory (London: Free Association Books, 1988), 251. It is also important to note that Lillian Smith's name still features as the title of an annual Southern literary award that goes to the work that most powerfully and successfully interlaces black and white identity issues in the South.

  9. Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1949), 29. Smith's mining of her memories is echoed by Melton McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing up White in the Segregated South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), in his description of spitting after putting a football pump in his mouth that had been in the mouth of his black friend, Bobo. At this point in his narrative, McLaurin becomes aware of his acculturated belief that he and Bobo belonged to “two fundamentally different worlds and that society demanded that we each stay in the world designated for us” despite years of shared play, 27–41.

  10. In The Temple of My Familiar (London: Penguin, 1990) Alice Walker also creates a situation where Fanny, a black woman who grew up in Georgia, repressed the memory of her white playmate Tanya. It is only through therapy that she regains this memory which she had suppressed after the shock of being hit by Tanya's grandmother for kissing her little white granddaughter.

  11. This “sorting” is a significant feature of a system that is examined by the Nebraskan Tillie Olsen in the short story “O Yes” (1956) in Tell Me A Riddle (New York: Laurel, 1979), 48–71. It is also noted by the white interviewees who reconstruct their childhoods in Ruth Frankenberg, The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women Race Matters (London: Routledge, 1993). Tangentially, they remember that black childhood friends were “‘tracked’ into vocational and remedial classes in high school” and they lost contact with them after this point (p. 79).

  12. Susan Richards Shreve, A Country of Strangers (London: Sceptre, 1990), 66. Subsequent references will be included in the text.

  13. Katherine C. Hodgin in Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, eds., Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993), 411.

  14. Alice Walker, Meridian (London: The Women's Press, 1982), 105.

  15. Richard Gray, Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 234.

  16. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London and New York: Methuen, 1980), 73. My italics.

  17. Julian Mason, “Kaye Gibbons [1960–]” in Flora and Bain, 161.

  18. Elizabeth Abel, “(E)Merging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 6: 3 (1981), 423.

  19. Kaye Gibbons in Shirley M. Jordan ed., Broken Silences: Interviews with Black and White Women Writers (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 78.

  20. In A Virtuous Woman (1989), for example, Gibbons explores marriage and bereavement, and also the role and stereotype of the black housekeeper and how her white employer's leisure is incumbent upon the black woman's skills as well as her economically inferior position.

  21. Mikhail Bakhtin as quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 95–96.

  22. Ibid., 107.

  23. Robert Stam, Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism and Film (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 232.

  24. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 52. For a more detailed reading, see my “Writing for Revision,” new formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics, 20 (Summer 1993), 173–180.

  25. Kaye Gibbons in Jordan, p. 78.

  26. Jay Clayton, The Pleasures of Babel: Contemporary American Literature and Theory (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 140. Clayton only considers Ellen Foster in passing but, in an otherwise illuminating and important study, he misreads the example on which he bases his argument. He has it that Ellen visits Mavis and her family and so begins to articulate what a family may be and what it should contain, whereas in the text Ellen is only spying on the black families who live on the edge of her grandmother's plantation, so her assessment of a family unit is much more a projection of her own desires than an empirical experience of a particular black household.

  27. Belva Plain, Crescent City (London: HarperCollins, 1993) A popular writer of historical romances, Plain sees the dramatic potential of New Orleans in the period from the 1830s to the Civil War. She “goes South” in one of her many novels and reinscribes motifs that owe much to Gone With The Wind in a romantic and sentimental story. The black child, Fanny, is an adjunct to the white child, Miriam, and a foil for her, little else.

  28. Toni Morrison in interview with Nellie McKay as quoted in Jan Furman, Toni Morrison's Fiction (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 42.


Kaye Gibbons Long Fiction Analysis


Gibbons, Kaye (Vol. 88)