'Ferris Beach': A Moving, Meaningful Coming-of-age Novel

October 21, 1990|By ANNE WHITEHOUSE | ANNE WHITEHOUSE,Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

Ferris Beach.

Jill McCorkle.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

343 pages. $18.95.

Jill McCorkle's fourth work of fiction is an evocative and richly textured coming-of-age novel that is at bottom a fable about mothers and daughters. Set in the mythical town of Fulton, N.C., during the '60s and early '70s, "Ferris Beach" spans Katie Burns' life from age 5 to 16.

"A birthmark the color of wine" covers Katie's left cheek and neck, about which she is extremely self-conscious. Her mother Cleva's way of dealing with this and other afflictions is to remind Katie of those who are worse off than she is. Katie rebels against her mother's attitude: "I always wanted to say that if it was a birthmark it must be her fault." In the rejection of her mother, Katie turns to her mysterious cousin, Angela, whom she has met just once. When she was 5, Katie was taken by her father, Fred, on a surreptitious visit to Ferris Beach, S.C., to meet Angela.

Angela, too, has a birthmark, a mole above her lip, only hers is an asset, "a beauty mark." From the instant Katie sees Angela, she is drawn by her beauty and vibrancy, qualities that she also observes her father responding to. Her mother's disapproval of

Angela -- which led her father to lie about the visit, and her mother to guess why he lied -- enhances her attractions for Katie, as does the tragedy of her past. Angela's mother, who was Fred's sister, died at age 17 giving birth to her, refusing to reveal the identity of Angela's father.

That Cleva's admonishments to Katie result in behavior that she deplores in her daughter is one of the delights of this novel. Rather than soberly considering her relative good fortune, Katie is fascinated by others' travails against their handicaps. For an entire year, when she is 8, she frequently shuts herself up in her room with a blindfold on, imagining that she is Helen Keller.

She escapes into her fantasies, the strongest being that she is really Angela's daughter, that Angela gave birth to Katie when

she was 17 like her own mother, and

then gave her to Fred and Cleva to raise. In fact, Katie's fantasy is an attempt to imagine herself as Angela, and to claim her father, who was like a surrogate father or brother to Angela, while opposing her mother. Even in her absence, Angela is a constant source of discord between Fred and Cleva.

Katie is a sensitive narrator, curious and observant about her community and her neighbors' lives. Ms. McCorkle's characters are vividly rendered, interesting, eccentric and believable. She has a fine comic ear and an eye for realistic and convincing details. Her use of popular songs and television programs to illustrate Katie's link to the larger culture is suggestive rather than reductive; allusions are woven into the texture of her story.

She possesses an ability to bring time and place to life; her Fulton is a portrait of the South in transition, and her characters span a cross-section of that society, from Cleva's friend, the imperious busybody and benefactor Mrs. Poole, to the redneck Huckses, whom Katie, partly horrified and fascinated, spies on from her bedroom porch.

Katie shares her fantasies with her best friend, Misty Rhodes, whose mother, Mo, is an Angela-like character, only apparently kinder and more maternal than Angela. The parallel story of the Rhodes family embellishes and deepens the mother-daughter theme. Mo's shocking abandonment of her family and the inexplicable tragedy that occurs afterward offer a cautionary tale that nevertheless raises more questions than it answers, creating a myth even as it demolishes one.

"I was never certain which of my dad's stories were true and which had been embellished; I'm not even sure that he himself knew," says Katie at 13. She resembles her father, yet after Angela re-enters the Burns' lives the following year, Katie gradually comes to see her more realistically than in her childhood idolization -- that is, more through her mother's eyes. Eventually she discovers for herself the true nature of the link between Angela and Mo Rhodes, a tie less romantic than sordid. In a beautifully rendered, emotionally satisfying scene, it is Angela herself -- manipulative, self-deceptive and mendacious -- who takes it upon

herself to shatter Katie's fantasy about her and make her face the mundane, unembellished truth.

The tragedy of Mo Rhodes is followed by two other tragedies. In an otherwise comic novel, these occur as willed, arbitrary events, important insofar as they affect the surviving characters. Ms. McCorkle's achievement is to portray convincingly her characters' evolutions over time. "Ferris Beach" is as much about accepting limitation as it is about welcoming possibility.

As she grows older, Katie yearns for intimacy with her mother, which she finds hard to achieve: "It seemed that I could never get close enough to tell her I was sorry I had ever wished her away. That I was my mother's daughter, and that for every time she had misjudged me, I had misjudged her." It is when these limitations are recognized that the possible seems attainable. Ms. McCorkle has written a moving, meaningful book that is a pleasure to read.

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