Kaye Gibbons 1960-
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.
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.
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.
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.”