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Kaye Gibbons Biography

women mother southern family

Nationality: American. Born: Nash County, North Carolina, 1960. Education: Attended North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Awards: Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction (American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters); National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; Nelson Algren Heartland award for Fiction (Chicago Tribune), 1991; PEN/Revson Foundation fellowship.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Ellen Foster. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 1987.

A Virtuous Woman. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 1989.

A Cure for Dreams. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 1991.

Charms for the Easy Life. New York, Putnam, 1993.

Sights Unseen. New York, Putnam, 1995.

On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon. New York, Putnam, 1998.

Other

Contributor, with others, Pete and Shirley: The Great Tar Heel Novel(serial novel). Asheboro, North Carolina, Down Home Press, 1995.

Contributor, Southern Selves: From Mark Twain and Eudora Welty to Maya Angelou and Kaye Gibbons: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing, edited by James H. Watkins. New York, Vintage Books, 1998.

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Critical Studies:

Southern Selves: From Mark Twain and Eudora Welty to Maya Angelou and Kaye Gibbons: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing, edited by James H. Watkins, New York, Vintage Books, 1998.

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Kaye Gibbons is a prolific twentieth-century Southern writer whose fiction has garnered extensive praise from critics and gained national recognition through lengthy stints on the best-seller list. Much of her fiction derives from her experiences growing up in rural North Carolina, a locale which also provides the setting for her novels. She most often writes about women's efforts to become self-reliant despite the restrictive nature of Southern culture, and her use of this theme illustrates the importance of communal support in the development of female voices and independence. Gibbons's fiction also demonstrates the strength that women draw from their familial histories and from passing their oral histories on to generations of women that follow them.

Gibbons's novels examine the conflicts that women face in their marital relationships, as well as the strong bonds that develop between mothers and daughters when the marriages in question are less than satisfying. Gibbons tells her mother-daughter stories from a variety of perspectives and voices, consistently examining the consequences that await women who enter into marriages with the wrong men. Most of these men come from a lower social class than their wives and are emotionally closed, and accordingly, fail to provide the type of fulfilling relationships that their wives crave. Gibbons's novels do not degenerate into mere examinations of the pitiful state of these women's lives, however, but instead demonstrate the ways in which they find contentment after they have "privately withdrawn their affections" from their husbands. Instead, Gibbons's women find this contentment through their relationships with other women. Gibbons ultimately demonstrates the ways in which these women build the best lives that they can with the tools at hand: they do not bemoan the results of their poor choices, but simply learn to live with them and to take happiness where they find it.

Ellen Foster, Gibbons's first novel, is narrated from the perspective of a pre-teen girl who has suffered the suicide of her mother and who attempts to survive life with her sexually abusive, alcoholic father. Ellen finds herself in this predicament because her mother has married a man who is considered beneath her by her family, and because neither she nor her mother has an adequate support system to help her endure this man's abuse. Rather than descending into a pit of self-pity and loathing as a result of her mother's suicide, however, Ellen carves out a life for herself that is ultimately satisfactory, finding her place in a cheerful and loving foster home. She derives her last name, in fact, from the place that becomes her home, mistaking the term "Foster family" for the family's surname. Even in her most desperate state, Ellen manages to maintain a positive outlook, forging friendships with an African-American family that cares for her despite her initially racist attitudes which derive from her Southern heritage. As Ellen grows and finds a place, she develops a strong, independent voice, and comes to important realizations about the value of people—value that exists without regard to race.

A Virtuous Woman tells the story of an abiding love which develops between two unlikely partners, in spite of their widely divergent backgrounds. Ruby comes from a privileged family, which she does not fully appreciate until she runs away with migrant worker John Woodrow. To Woodrow, Ruby is a trophy who, having lost its newness very early on in their tempestuous marriage, becomes the recipient of abuse which results from Woodrow's frustration with his poverty-stricken existence. Following Woodrow's death, Ruby becomes involved with Jack, a tenant farmer who, although beneath her in rank in the Southern social hierarchy, treats her with respect, albeit the type of respect one would show to one's mother. The reader has a sense that Ruby has "settled for" her second husband in part because she is ashamed to return to her family after choosing the abusive Woodrow, but she builds a satisfactory life for herself that is only cut short by the lung cancer that she contracts as a result of a smoking habit that she develops during her first marriage as a means of stress relief.

A Cure for Dreams tells the story of three generations of women. The novel begins with the marriage of Lottie, to which she naively agrees, seeing it as a way to escape the desperate poverty of her Kentucky family. She rapidly learns that she has little in common with her husband, a man with an obsessive work ethic and a stunted ability to interact with other people. Unable to build a fulfilling relationship with her husband, Lottie showers all of her attention on her daughter, who, although devoted to Lottie, fails in her single attempt to thrive outside of the protection of her mother's wing. Lottie's story demonstrates the power of female solidarity through the growth of Lottie's weekly card-playing group. Not only do the members of the group meet expressly to engage in an activity traditionally reserved for men, but their meetings take place during a time when the men's work week would have generally been winding down, thus leaving them with free time. These women choose each other's company rather than that of their husbands, choosing female companionship over their duties to provide comfort for their inattentive husbands.

On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon is a series of flashbacks told from the perspective of an elderly woman who senses that her death is approaching. She relates tales of her childhood with a tyrannical, social-climbing father and a loving but beaten-down mother. Unlike Gibbons's other female protagonists, Emma Garnet finds true happiness in her marriage to a generous and kind-hearted Yankee doctor. Her marriage saves her from her father's evil actions—actions which include killing a slave in cold blood and terrorizing his wife, female children, and servants—but simultaneously dooms her mother to a dour and violent life. Emma Garnet ultimately stands up to her father, an event which is precipitated by his hand in her mother's death. Much like the protagonists of Gibbons's other novels, Emma Garnet is able to survive harsh realities: living in her father's home, serving as a Civil War nurse, and watching her beloved husband work himself into an early grave. She survives these devastating events because of a strong, supportive community of women. Clarice is a cherished African-American woman who first raised Emma Garnet's father, and then moved with Emma Garnet to her husband's home to help her set up housekeeping. Clarice provides a much-needed sense of stability which allows Emma Garnet to withstand the trials of war, to develop a relationship with the much-younger sister for whom she has no respect, and to bear the untimely loss of her husband. On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon once again illustrates the necessity of female community for women who would survive the trials of Southern womanhood.

Charms for an Easy Life again tells the story of mothers and daughters, beginning with Charlie Kate. Charlie Kate is a midwife who gains the respect of her community at an early age, and whose folk remedies are revered even above those that have been accepted for years. She raises her daughter alone, following her husband's desertion. The novel follows the developing relationships between three generations of women, illustrating their conflicts and the ways that they resolve them.

Sights Unseen deals with the impact of a mother's mental illness on her young family. Told from the perspective of the youngest child, this novel, much like the acclaimed Ellen Foster, tells the story of Hattie, a child cast adrift from a sense of place and belonging because of her mother's inability to bond with her. Sights Unseen focuses on Maggie's fight to regain her sanity and then to develop a meaningful relationship with her daughter. Gibbons's novel is founded on another long-standing Southern notion: that certain subjects aren't discussed by "nice" people, that odd behavior is accepted so long as it is not too outlandish, and that mental illness should be swept under the rug rather than being openly discussed or treated.

Kaye Gibbons is an important Southern writer in large part because of ways in which she represents Southern womanhood and the expectations placed upon it. Her characters are realistically drawn, demonstrating many of the difficulties that result from cultural mores governing women's behavior. The tightly-knit groups of women, whether familial or based in the larger community, illustrate the ways in which Gibbons's women attempt to control their own destinies within the confines of Southern social mores.

—Suzanne Disheroon Green

Gail (Gretchen) Gibbons (1944-) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress, Sidelights [next]

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