ON THE OCCASION OF MY LAST AFTERNOON by Kaye Gibbons

ON THE OCCASION OF MY LAST AFTERNOON

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Gibbons’s first outing after anointment by Oprah is a Civil War tale that’s historically researched to a fault but psychologically the stuff of melodrama. On what may be the last day of her life, Emma Garnet Lowell, neÇ Tate, sets out to tell all, from childhood in tidewater Virginia (where she was born in 1830) through marriage, childbirth, the war itself, widowhood, and old age. Everything about the telling in setting and in people is writ large. Of characters who are bad, central and most horrendous by far is Emma’s father, Samuel Tate, a crude, tyrannical, pro-slavery plantation owner who’s raised himself from nothing, kills one of his own slaves, collects Titians, and prizes his Latin studies. Least bad is Emma’s mother Alice, saint and central martyr to this ruffian and gout-plagued husband and father who curses Emma’s unborn children when she marries Dr. Quincy Lowell of the Boston Lowells, and moves to Raleigh, North Carolina, taking with her the faithful, kind, stalwart, true household servant Clarice Washington. In Raleigh will be born the couple’s three perfect daughters, and there the war will rage, taking an always-greater toll as the years grind on, supplies grow meager, and both Quincy and Emma work beyond endurance in the horrors of the military hospital. History throughout is summoned up in the tiniest of details—“her frock, deep green velvet with red grosgrain running like Christmas garlands around her skirt”—and though Emma’s voice is intended to be of its period, it unfortunately tends also toward the wearying (“Without my brother, I would not have known to use books as a haven, a place to go when pain has invaded my citadel”). A book of saints, sinners, and sorrows offering much pleasure for history-snoopers (hospital scenes among the best) but finding no new ground for the saga of the South.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-399-14299-1
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998




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