Kaye Gibbons | Critical Review by Rhoda Koenig

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Kaye Gibbons.
This section contains 1,004 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Rhoda Koenig

Critical Review by Rhoda Koenig

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 Dreams without sounding nauseating, or giving the impression that it's all the horrible things implied by "perky," "plucky," and "dear." I suppose if there is a platonic perky, plucky, and dear, though—ones that have resisted the gunky accretions of self-dramatizing cuteness—it's here that they apply.

Betty Randolph's mother, Lottie O'Cadhain, is the dreamer whose story this is. She starts out dreaming, in 1917, not only of love but of escape from the hill country of Kentucky, where her Irish family hugs tribulation to its breast for an occupation. "My mother told me a million times that Ireland and the Irish people were special, and that the O'Cadhain family in particular was the most blessed of all because it had been imposed upon without cease since the dawn it sprung up in Galway. For centuries they had been in training to have nothing, so everything was more or less working perfectly according to God's plan."

An Excerpt from Ellen Foster

Starletta I always thought I was special because I was white and when I thought about you being colored I said to myself it sure is a shame Starletta's colored. I sure would hate to be that way. White people selling your mama's quilts like they do. And the three of you live in that house that's about to fall down. I always went away from your house wondering how you stood to live without a inside toilet. I know your daddy just put one in but you went a long time without one. Longer than any white folks I know. And when I thought about you I always felt glad for myself. And now I don't know why. I really don't. And I just wanted to tell you that. You don't have to say anything back. You just lay there and wait for supper.

And I will lay here too and wait for supper beside a girl that every rule in the book says I should not have in my house much less laid still and sleeping by me.

But while I watch her asleep now I remember that they changed that rule. So it does not make any sense for me to feel like I'm breaking the law.

Nobody but a handful of folks I know pays attention to rules about how you treat somebody anyway. But as I lay in that bed and watch my Starletta fall asleep I figure that if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it. It seems like the decent thing to do.

I came a long way to get here but when you think about it real hard you will see that old Starletta came even farther.

And I watch her resting now because soon we'll all be eating supper and maybe some cake tonight and I say low Starletta you sure have a right to rest.

And all this time I thought I had the hardest row to hoe.

That will always amaze me.

Kaye Gibbons, in her Ellen Foster, Algonquin Books, 1987.

Lottie does find a young man to carry her off—to North Carolina—but their union founders on a common misunderstanding. Charles sees in Lottie a fellow enthusiast for hard work, someone who will be happy breaking rocks by his side in the cotton field. Lottie has indeed worked hard, but, in a family of lazy, drunken men, out of necessity rather than virtue. She thinks she is marrying someone who will let her have a rest. When they realize their mistake, he damns her for a flibbertigibbet, and she dismisses him as grim and boring. They ignore each other as much as possible, and Lottie gives her love to her daughter, who alarms her as she grows up and becomes attracted to feckless types.

That's about all, but a lot goes on in this little mill town of neglected women and taciturn, sometimes brutal men: One chapter, in which Lottie helps a woman get away with murdering her husband, is a satisfying little tale of female conspiracy and revenge. The local slattern gets everyone's sympathy after her husband "just took his foot in his hand and left his wife six months along with twins, with already enough kids to bait a trotline." A man despairs of his business, and is found "straight upside down on his head with the river rocks on either side, like bookends." Gibbons's colorful, matter-of-fact style ("This uncle had purely by accident crawled in the fireplace as a baby, and thus nobody enjoyed looking at him") at times recalls that of Damon Runyon—who was, after all, a country boy.

One thing is a bit disturbing. While Gibbons's first book, Ellen Foster, was also a story of female solidarity and male wickedness, it was told by a mistreated child, who could not be expected to have a complex view of such matters. A Cure for Dreams, though, is narrated by a middle-aged woman who accepts her mother's version of events as Holy Writ. Yet if Charles had not been such a workhorse, his two dependents would have felt the full horror of the Depression. And after the initial disappointment, we never hear of his loneliness or unhappiness, or of Betty's resentment at her mother's inability to patch things up. Gibbons is a lovely writer, but the morality here skirts self-righteousness; she's too good to get stuck in the genre of feminist fairy tale.

(read more)

This section contains 1,004 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Rhoda Koenig
Follow Us on Facebook