Kaye Gibbons Gibbons, Kaye (Vol. 88) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kaye Gibbons 1960–

American novelist.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Andrew Rosenheim (review date 25 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Voices of the New South," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4469, November 25, 1988, p. 1306.

[Rosenheim is an American novelist and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines the "narrative tone" in Ellen Foster, contending that "the voice is distinctly Southern … [and focuses] our attention as much on the story as the voice telling it."]

In Kaye Gibbons's first novel, Ellen Foster, detachment is the keynote of an eerily removed narrative tone. The narrator is Ellen herself, recalling a personal history of repeated tragedy and abuse. When the heroine says at the beginning of the novel, "I had me a egg sandwich for breakfast", some readers may groan, anticipating the rural, folksy, semi-literate Southern dialect that has degenerated by now into self-caricature. Yet, unselfconscious, undramatic, never aggrandizing, the quietness of the girl's account subtly magnifies the awfulness of what has happened to her—her father, a brutal drunkard, drives her mother to suicide, and begins to make sexual advances towards his daughter; Ellen, returned by the courts from a short reprieve in the home of a kindly school-teacher to live with her grandmother, is put to work chopping cotton; the death of her father is followed rapidly by the grandmother's demise; and when her upbringing is taken over by yet more unkind relatives, she moves finally to take her fate into her own hands.

Through all this we slowly come to recognize the girl's remarkable, understated quality: her sheer spunkiness. Alone on Christmas Eve, she wraps presents for herself, and says simply: "When I found them the next day I was very surprised in the spirit of Christmas." The voice is as distinctively Southern as the unschooled monologues in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, yet it stops sufficiently short of self-caricature to focus our attention as much on the story as the voice telling it. For a first novelist, Gibbons seems remarkably free of the anxieties of influence; like other new Southern women writers (Ellen Gilchrist, Nancy Lemann), she has no difficulty telling a story in her own way.

Padgett Powell (review date 30 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "As Ruby Lay Dying," in The New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1989, pp. 12-13.

[Powell is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following positive review of A Virtuous Woman, he maintains that the novel has a "remarkable structure" that compensates for the lack of "verbal and dramatic fireworks."]

All the people in Kaye Gibbons's second novel, A Virtuous Woman, are, as they might put it, considerable banged up. Two women, vestiges of Southern belles, have had to marry tenant farmers, or worse. A son has seen his daddy smashed by a tractor. Another son has been (s)mothered into raping a woman and hanging a mule. A heavy black maid must wrap her knees with Ace bandages in order to stoop and bend. And the woman of virtue referred to in the title is the wife of a migrant farm laborer who, when he discovers that her wealthy (by his lights) father is not good for much dowry, parades a 16-year-old girl in front of her, wearing the wife's lingerie. He then runs out to a pool hall, gets knifed and dies.

This death allows the virtuous Ruby Pitt Woodrow, who most imprudently eloped with the scoundrel to begin with, to meet and marry a good man, Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes, a man who may also fairly be called sweet, and a man who may finally be called virtuous himself. Ruby lives a good life with Jack until she experiences the ultimate banging up—her death by lung cancer at age 45, which leaves Jack more than a little at loose ends. In fact, their life has been a travail of making ends meet, while not having children or money or much else except each other: a life measured in spoonfuls of cornmeal.

This compact, complex novel is a somewhat stripped-down descendant of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. There are, however, two large differences. First, the mythic is eschewed. No coffin will go down the river; rather, Jack will allow Ruby's hands to be unnaturally folded on her chest because, he is told, everyone goes that way. He fiddles with her hands only to conceal her nicotine-stained fingers, the mark of her death (a curious gesture, it seems, given the tobacco-is-king climate of North Carolina, where the novel is set). And, second, it is not a multitude but merely two narrators who address us, one of them Ruby as she actually does lie dying. Jack speaks to us after Ruby dies, Ruby as she prepares to.


(The entire section is 1005 words.)

Deanna D'Errico (review date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Timers," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following excerpt, D'Errico favorably assesses A Virtuous Woman, but faults Gibbons's use of multiple narrators in the final chapter as an instance of technique overpowering content.]

Her slim, elegant first novel, Ellen Foster, displayed Kaye Gibbons's formidable talent for rendering first-person internal monologue, shifting time frames, and "southern" dialect, breathing life into a character and a tale that are unforgettable. A Virtuous Woman, her second novel, has many of the same characteristics. The story is told through alternating...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Marilyn Chandler (review date July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Virtuous Woman, in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July 1989, p. 21.

[Chandler is an Indian-born American educator, essayist, and critic. In the following review, she examines the themes of loyalty, self-sacrifice, compassion, and love in A Virtuous Woman.]

"Until death do us part" is a line couples tend to utter with increasing dubiousness, if not irony. Why people couple, why they stay coupled and what happens to them when death uncouples them, are disturbing questions in a culture committed to contradictory ideals of self-actualization and lasting relationship. In a time of chronic mass confusion about the business of...

(The entire section is 1748 words.)

Roz Kavaney (review date 15 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Making Themselves Over," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4511, September 15, 1989, p. 998.

[In the following excerpt, Kavaney positively reviews A Virtuous Woman.]

Kaye Gibbons's second novel, A Virtuous Woman, has the simplicity of a good Country-and-Western song; where her first, Ellen Foster, had all the artifice in the world going for its portrait of a child whose naiveté masks a growing sense of the world's real complexity, here she shows us two adults for whom extremity has revealed the bare bones of life. Ruby, a name chosen because Solomon informs us that the price of the virtuous woman is above it, is in alternate chapters dying...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

Rhoda Koenig (review date 1 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Southern Comfort," in New York Magazine, Vol. 24, No. 13, April 1, 1991, p. 63.

[In the following excerpt, Koenig enthusiastically reviews A Cure for Dreams. She notes, however, that Gibbons appears, occasionally, to confuse morality with self-righteousness.]

"When my mother was a young girl she spent the pinks of summer evenings sitting on the banks of the Brownies Creek, where it flows into the Cumberland River. She always sat with a ball of worsted in her lap, knitting and dreaming of love coming to her."

So begins Kaye Gibbons's third and, once again, absolutely darling novel. It's hard to praise a book like A Cure for...

(The entire section is 1014 words.)

Ralph C. Wood (essay date 23-30 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gumption and Grace in the Novels of Kaye Gibbons," in The Christian Century, Vol. 109, No. 27, September 23-30, 1992, pp. 842-46.

[In the following essay, Wood examines Gibbons's first three novels, contending that her writings are "spiritually bracing" because her "characters tell and listen to stories … to discern their tragic situation, [and] to adjust their dreams to their disappointments."]

Devotional reading can be injurious to the devotional life, C. S. Lewis once observed. He confessed that he was more deeply moved to prayer and piety by Athanasius's treatise on the incarnation than by books designed to inspire and uplift. Few things tempt me more to...

(The entire section is 4669 words.)

Stephen McCauley (review date 11 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'He's Gone. Go Start the Coffee.,'" in The New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1993, pp. 9-10.

[McCauley is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review, he applauds the strong female characters and lyrical prose in Charms for the Easy Life, but faults Gibbons for making the central character, Charlie Kate, less than believable because of her resilience and invulnerability.]

Kaye Gibbons made an auspicious literary debut in 1987 with the publication of Ellen Foster, a short, moving novel told in the voice of its feisty 11-year-old heroine. Old Ellen, as the character calls herself, had a childhood that would...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bell, Pearl K. "Southern Discomfort." The New Republic 198, No. 9 (29 February 1988): 38-41.

Positive review of Ellen Foster which praises Gibbons's ear for regional dialogue and her ability to avoid "the condescending cuteness that afflicts so many stories about precocious children."

Hanson, Isie V. Review of Charms for the Easy Life, by Kaye Gibbons. Southern Living 28, No. 4 (April 1993): 112.

Brief, favorable review of Charms for the Easy Life.

Solomon, Charles. Review of A Cure for Dreams, by...

(The entire section is 162 words.)