For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Kaye Gibbons

Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons, Algonquin Books, 1987.


Kaye Gibbons has crafted an amazing voice in this novel. The story is told by Ellen who, in spite of being only 11, refers to herself as “old Ellen.” She is the victim of neglect and abuse, but she never even hints at self-pity. Her voice is so compelling because it is unwavering in its frankness and determination.

As the story unfolds, she first talks about caring for her dying mother under a blanket of rage and demands and violence from her alcoholic father. After her mother’s death, she stays with her father until it becomes too dangerous. She stays with a caring teacher, the grandmother who blames her for her mother’s death, an impoverished African-American family, her aunt and finally a loving foster home. Through it all, we adult readers perceive a child who is victimized, tossed about, adrift and abandoned. Ellen’s voice, however, tells a different story—it is a story of a girl with plans, who takes care of her own needs and learns to be satisfied and happy with the simple things.

Her dream is for a loving family, not anything of material significance—except maybe a microscope. Her main example for the kind of love she yearns for is from Starletta, an African-American girl that she befriends in spite of Jim Crow color line obstacles. Starletta’s family takes her in at her most desperate, and Ellen still feels fearful and dirty for having been in their home. One of the most beautiful aspects of the novel is Ellen’s transformation in this regard, as she yearns to make it up to Starletta by inviting her into her new home, to share her food and her bed, without prejudice.

Ellen’s voice in this book is so compelling, and her determination wins the day. A great story, beautifully written.

A Virtuous Woman, by Kaye Gibbons, Vintage Books, 1989.

I have only recently discovered Kaye Gibbons, having read Divining Women a few months ago. She has a beautiful way with words, creates rich and interesting characters and unpacks a story in a way that is both gentle and compelling.

A Virtuous Woman is told in two voices, alternating chapters. One is Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes, a lifelong tenant farmer who never had a thing to call his own. The other is Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes, who was raised with parents who owned a small farm and were secure enough to provide Ruby education and a steady, gentle upbringing. The novel recounts the story of their lives and their love—the difficult choices and their consequences, the struggles of life among tenant farmers and migrants, the rocky relationships and family flaws, and the deep and real and raw love between Jack and Ruby.

The characters are rich collection that Gibbons writes like an incomplete snapshot—never focused enough to freeze in an image, but clear enough that the imagination easily fills in the missing details. They flit across the lines of privilege and poverty, but privilege is never an indicator of happiness. Having something matters—whether that something is land or love.

Gibbons’ writing is so evocative that I found myself connecting with both Ruby and Jack in our common humanity, while maintaining the distance and difference between our lives and circumstances. Gibbons leads me to feel the same love and yearning and fullness in my own life that Jack and Ruby express in theirs, while still fascinated and intrigued by the differences between us.

It was a beautiful read, and I look forward to more.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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