On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon

Kaye Gibbons, Author Putnam Publishing Group $22.95 (278p) ISBN 978-0-399-14299-4
A plea for racial tolerance is the subtext of Gibbons's estimable new novel, her first foray into historical fiction. Like her previous books (Ellen Foster, 1997, etc.), it is set in the South, but this one takes place during the Civil War era. Now 70 and near death, Emma Garnet Tate begins her account by recalling her youth as a bookish, observant 12-year-old in 1842, living on a Virginia plantation in a highly dysfunctional family dominated by her foulmouthed father, a veritable monster of parental tyranny and racial prejudice. Samuel Tate abuses his wife and six children but he also studies the classics and buys paintings by old masters. Emma's long-suffering mother, of genteel background and gentle ways, is angelic and forgiving; her five siblings' lives are ruined by her father's cruelty; and all are discreetly cared for by Clarice, the clever, formidable black woman who is the only person Samuel Tate respects. (Clarice knows Samuel's humble origins and the dark secret that haunts him, which readers learn only at the end of the book.) Gibbons authentically reproduces the vocabulary and customs of the time: Emma's father says ""nigger"" while more refined people say Negroes. ""Nobody said the word slave. It was servant,"" Emma observes. At 17, Emma marries one of the Boston Lowells, a surgeon, and spends the war years laboring beside him in a Raleigh hospital. Through graphic scenes of the maimed and dying, Gibbons conveys the horror and futility of battle, expressing her heroine's abolitionist sympathies as Emma tends mangled bodies and damaged souls. By the middle of the book, however, Emma's narration and the portrayal of Clarice as a wise and forbearing earthmother lack emotional resonance. Emma, in fact, is far more interesting as a rebellious child than as a stoic grown woman. One finishes the novel admiring Emma and Clarice but missing the compelling narrative voice that might have made their story truly moving. (June)
Reviewed on: 06/01/1998
Release date: 06/01/1998
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FORMATS
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-0-671-57301-0
Hardcover - 208 pages - 978-0-399-19408-5
Paperback - 978-0-380-80980-6
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-380-73214-2
Paperback - 978-0-380-80981-3
Downloadable Audio - 978-0-7435-4315-6
Paperback - 273 pages - 978-0-06-079714-0
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