Kaye Gibbons 1960–
The following entry provides an overview of Gibbons's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 50.
Gibbons is best known for her novels about self-reliant Southern women and the challenges they have faced in their lives. Her stories are set in the twentieth century and are told in the plain, direct regional language of her first-person narrators. Her main themes include the vicissitudes of love and marriage, sickness and death, racism, poverty, and child abuse, and her characters are guided by an innate common sense and a steely determination not to give in to self-pity.
Born in Nash County, North Carolina, Gibbons attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1987, while still a student, Gibbons published her first novel, Ellen Foster. She lives with her husband and family in North Carolina.
All of Gibbons's novels focus on the lives of strong Southern women who face adversity and inspire those around them. In Ellen Foster, the title character runs away from her abusive father. Determined to make a better life for herself, she seeks help from a black couple and their daughter Starletta, with whom she becomes friends. In A Virtuous Woman (1989) Ruby Stokes is dying of cancer; much of the novel describes how she prepares her husband for a life without her. Traditional themes about the importance of love, caring, and selfless devotion are explored in this work. A Cure for Dreams (1991) presents Lottie O'Cadhain whose dream of finding love and leaving the hills of Kentucky is shattered by the reality of her marriage to a taciturn, compulsively industrious farmer. Lottie decides to devote all of her attention to raising their daughter Betty. Following a reckless affair with an unsavory character, Betty returns home and reassesses her dreams. The story of Charms for the Easy Life (1993) revolves around the colorful and flamboyant Charlie Kate Birch. Charlie Kate is a midwife and local sage whose self-assured approach to the everyday trials and tribulations of life is an inspiration to Margaret, her granddaughter and the narrator of the story.
Critical reaction to Gibbons's novels has been mostly favorable. Many critics applaud her realistic portrayal of contemporary Southern life and her use of dialogue, contending that it avoids the contrivances of Southern colloquialisms and skillfully arranges the cadence of words to give the characters' voices their Southern flavor. Some reviewers note that Gibbons's protagonists display—often in contrast to their stated beliefs—traditional social and moral values as they face the challenges of life. However, a few commentators fault the "indefatigable and infallible" perfection of her protagonists, suggesting that their pluck and perseverance sometimes border on caricature. Furthermore, some commentators question the effectiveness of Gibbons's narrative style, particularly the use of multiple narrators in A Virtuous Woman, which, they contend, creates confusion and damages the cohesiveness of the story. Many also note the predictability of some of Gibbons's plots and characters, but concede that her stories are engaging and realistically told, often revealing, as Ralph C. Wood observes, a "deep truth [which] is narrative and practical, not abstract and theoretical."