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Best known for fictional works about self-reliant Southern women who transcend the difficult circumstances of their lives, Kaye Gibbons entered the American literary scene with the publication of Ellen Foster (1987), a Southern coming-of-age novel. Set predominantly in rural Southern communities, Gibbons s novels are told in plain, direct regional language through first-person narrators. From the matriarchal folk healer to the uncompromising eleven-year-old, her powerful protagonists are guided by an innate wisdom and a steely determination not to succumb to self-pity.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Marked by Mental Illness
Kaye Gibbons was born on May 5, 1960, in a small rural community in Nash County, North Carolina. Gibbons’s father was a poor tobacco farmer who struggled with alcoholism and was often abusive. Her mother suffered from bipolar disorder, which causes a person to experience extreme swings from periods of depression to periods of mania, a state that includes intense activity and sleeplessness. She committed suicide when Gibbons was ten years old, and Gibbons’s father died only a few years later from complications associated with alcoholism. Afterwards, Gibbons was passed around from relative to relative, a lifestyle that provided her much of the material that evolved into Ellen Foster. By the time she was twenty, Gibbons had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
From Poetry to Prose
After graduating from high school, Gibbons attended North Carolina State University on a scholarship, majoring in English with the intent of becoming a teacher; however, her interest in writing led her to enroll at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, Gibbons became familiar with the works of James Weldon Johnson, an African American poet whose use of common speech patterns and idioms in his writing greatly influenced Gibbons’s prose style. Already a wife and mother of two by this time, Gibbons enrolled in a literature class taught by Louis Rubin, a renowned teacher and noted scholar of Southern literature, as well as the founder of the Algonquin Press. After Gibbons showed him a poem she had written from the viewpoint of an African American girl, the character who later became Ellen Foster’s friend Starletta, Rubin encouraged Gibbons to develop the poem into a novel. Two months later, she presented him with a manuscript that she had written during a six-week manic episode.
Accolades and Oprah
Ellen Foster won Gibbons the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Encouraged by her initial success, Gibbons again turned to the rural south for her second novel, A Virtuous Woman, published in 1989 to wide praise in the United States and abroad. That same year, Gibbons received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to write her next novel, A Cure for Dreams (1991), which also won several major writing awards.
During the early 1990s, the overwhelming success of Gibbons’s literary career was accompanied by stressful personal events. She went through a divorce, relocated to New York City, returned to North Carolina, changed publishers, and remarried. Nevertheless, such tumultuous changes did not hinder Gibbons’s literary accomplishments, as she continued to produce works welcomed by both critics and the general reading public. A major boost to Gibbons’s career came in 1997, when Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman were chosen as selections for the Oprah Book Club and promoted nationally on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Because of this publicity, Ellen Foster alone sold nearly 800,000 additional paperback copies ten years after its initial publication.
Opening Up to the Public
Since the appearance of Sights Unseen (1995), Gibbons has been open about her own battle with bipolar disorder, and her efforts to share her condition with others led to the autobiographical work Frost and Flower: My Life with Manic Depression So Far (1995). Currently, Gibbons lives in Raleigh with her husband and their five children. Aside from her work as a writer, Gibbons is active in the Raleigh community, serving on the Board of Directors for the Friends of the Library of North Carolina State, and volunteering for the Books for Children Project.
Works in Literary Context
Despite the challenges of her young life—or more likely because of them—Gibbons has developed into a writer with a distinctive voice. Many of her works focus on an individual’s alienation from society and the ways in which class status serves to limit the choices available to individuals. Certainly this issue of alienation is one that Gibbons was well acquainted with as a child, given her family’s poverty and her mother’s suicide. The influence of her past is especially evident in her novels. Another aspect of Gibbons’s life that has had a profound impact on her writing is her bipolar disorder. Although this condition has become more treatable, Gibbons is careful, for she does not want to sacrifice the creativity that has allowed her to become an award-winning novelist.
Strong Southern Females
Gibbons’s novels focus on the lives of strong Southern females who boldly face adversity and, in doing so, inspire those around them. In contrast, most of the male characters appearing in Gibbons’s works are unsympathetic figures, who, says reviewer Stephen McCauley, are ”3D;” that is, the men in a Gibbons novel can usually be counted on to ”disappoint, disappear, and die.” With extraordinary courage, her women persevere, daring to challenge what some people might call fate. In the novels featuring young narrators, Ellen Foster and Sights Unseen, for example, Gibbons’s trademark heroine is, as reviewer Kathryn Harrison notes, ”a girl who, having lost her mother—having lost all comfort and safety— attacks the chaos of her life with heartbreaking bravery.” No matter her age, the typical Gibbons protagonist proves to be a resilient female survivor, one who faces hardship with intelligence and a strong will while waging quiet wars against abuse, against sexist inequality, even against life’s everyday burdens. Whether escaping an abusive father, as does Ellen Foster, or preparing her family for life without her, as does the dying Ruby Stokes in A Virtuous Woman, Gibbons’s protagonists demonstrate a self-assured approach to the trials of life.
Works in Critical Context
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 characters their Southern flavor. Some critics note that Gibbons’s protagonists display traditional social and moral values as they face the challenges of life. As scholar Julian Mason has observed, Gibbons is a writer who has ”taken the perseverance of the human spirit . . . for her continuing literary domain.”
The negative criticism Gibbons has received is based on the unflagging perfection of her protagonists, leading commentators to determine that their pluck and perseverance sometimes border on caricature. While some reviewers have condemned the predictability of some of Gibbons’s plots, they also concede that her stories are engaging and realistically told and often reveal, as Ralph C. Wood observes, a ”deep truth [which] is narrative and practical, not abstract and theoretical.” Without a doubt, her firmly grounded sense of place, combined with believable and often heartrending characterizations, has won Gibbons a significant readership.
In large part because of Gibbons’s adept handling of sensitive themes, critics have been lavish in their admiration of Ellen Foster. A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews calls the book a ”child’s-eye tale of evil giving way to goodness—and happily far more spunky than sweet.” An unnamed reviewer for Publishers Weekly notes that the book resembles ”a Victorian tearjerker, transplanted to the South,” and offers a cautious recommendation: ”Some readers will find the recital of Ellen’s woes mawkishly sentimental, but for others it may be a perfect summer read.” Fellow writer Alice Hoffman describes Ellen Foster as ”filled with lively humor, compassion and integrity,” suggesting that Ellen Foster is possibly ”the most trustworthy character in recent fiction.”
In regard to Gibbons’s ability to control Ellen’s point of view, critic Pearl K. Bell commends Gibbons for giving narrative authority to a child. Bell writes: Ellen has a rare capacity for seeing through phonies and figuring things out, but Gibbons never allows us to feel the slightest doubt that she is only 11. … The voice of this resourceful child is mesmerizing because we are right inside her head. The words are always flawlessly right. . . .
Ellen is an original who remains sweet and loving through the worst of times. Thus does Gibbons persuade us, as few writers can, that even a terrible childhood can be a state of grace. If not for Ellen’s narrative voice, the terrible events of her young life could easily result in melodrama. According to reviewer Brad Hooper, however, Gibbons controls her narrative with such skill that Ellen Foster is ”never weepy or grim, despite the subject matter.” Additionally, reviewer Linda Taylor confirms that Ellen is believable ”because although she has a dark tale to tell, she will not engineer sympathy for her effects.” Though some consider Ellen’s narrative voice to be a correct portrayal of the world from a child’s viewpoint, other critics question her believability as a narrator, arguing that her perspective is often too mature and knowing to be that of a child. While Ellen’s instinctual wisdom might not be realistic for that of an eleven-year-old girl, even the novel’s strongest detractors can agree that Gibbons has created a clear voice to be reckoned with.
- ”Kaye Gibbons (1960-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Sharon K. Hall. Vol. 50. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988, pp. 46-50.
- Mason, Julian. Contemporary Writers of the South. Edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 156-168.
- Bell, Pearl K. ”Southern Discomfort.” New Republic (February 29, 1988): 38-41.
- Harrison, Kathryn. ”Tara It Ain’t.” New York Times Book Review (July 19, 1988): 12.
- Hoffman, Alice. ”Shopping for a New Family.” New York Times Book Review (May 31, 1987): 13. Hooper, Brad. ”Review of Ellen Foster.” Booklist (September 1, 1987): 27.
- Makowsky, Veronica. ”The Only Hard Part Was the Food: Recipes for Self-Nurture in Kaye Gibbons’s Novels.” Southern Quarterly (Winter-Spring 1992): 103-112.
- McCauley, Stephen. ”He’s Gone, Go Start the Coffee.” New York Times Book Review (April 11, 1993): 9-10.
- Taylor, Linda. ”A Kind of Primitive Charm.” Sunday Times (May 8, 1988): G6.
- Wood, Ralph C. ”Gumption and Grace in the Novels of Kaye Gibbons.” The Christian Centuryvol. 109, no. 27 (September 23-30, 1992): 842-846.
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