A CURE OF DREAMS.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
` 171 pages. $14.95.
Kaye Gibbons is part of a vanishing breed of writers -- writers who care about words, who chose them carefully not only for what they mean but how they sound. In "A Cure of Dreams," she writes:
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. The man in her one dream would ride up and surprise her on his horse, and then he would reach down and take the ball of worsted from her and toss it up into the air and shoot a hole through it. Then he would reach out over the horse's head and catch the yarn and hand it back to my mother, saying her beauty pierced such a great place in his heart. Then he would ride off. . . .
Even in her dreams my mother denied herself the impossible. The man who finally wooded my mother wasn't a dream man, and he didn't find her knitting on a river bank. He found her at a Quaker wedding in 1917, which was a very bold place for her to be. Her mother, Bridget O'Cadhain, had taught her daughters that the doors of English churches were the gates of Hell and that terrible things happened to Catholics who went inside, like blindness and deafness or sheerly death. My mother went to the wedding anyway because she was fifteen and therefore a slave to risk.
This slim novel is beautifully bound in a small size that makes it a comfortable traveling or sitting companion. Because the reader is not burdened by a physically heavy tome, one is drawn instead to the novel's storytelling qualities. The teller is the mother of 47-year-old Marjorie Polly Randolph, who describes her mother ". . . chattering like a string-pull doll. I had spent my life listening to her . . . I would need only say to her, Tell me about your mother and you, and Kentucky and Virginia and the wild way I was born. Tell me about the years that made you. Then she would talk. Talking was my mother's life."
The storyteller, Betty Davis Randolph, begins with her own mother's story. Betty is the daughter of Lottie O'Cadhain, who is the daughter of Bridget O'Cadhain. Bridget brought her family (including alcoholic husband and brother-in-law) from Ireland to Kentucky. Lottie made things work, grimly and barely, and with an iron fist.
Lottie married a Welsh Quaker at 16 and went with him to North Carolina. This Welshman, Betty's dad, believed that life was all -- work and toil. Lottie, viewing her marriage as an escape from a drudging and loveless life, refused to succumb more than absolutely necessary, and then only in body and not in spirit, to the fanatic driving of Charles Davies, her husband.
Lottie longed for children to hug and nurture, but was able to have only one -- Betty, who became best friend and confidante. )) This companionship sprang up quite understandably from a loneliness in Lottie, who had never known the love of mother, father or husband.
Betty's story is a love story of Lottie and Betty, mother and daughter, and how they sought a life in which they were more than someone else's pawn. They did nothing grand, but their flower gathering, card playing, crafty and careful selection of beautiful material for spring dresses, their caring for the town outcast and her rude waif children -- all these simple tales are part of Betty's growing up.
The story is not chronologically complete. We learn through episodic moments where the characters have come from, who they are and what they are struggling against. The story moves the spirit more than the libido, and satisfies one's sense of family and self more than one's thirst for action. Characters are vivid because they are minutely drawn from dialogue and interaction, but they are also universal. They are sympathetic because they simultaneously take risks, are imprisoned by various addictions, and yearn for the independence and vitality that come from change and growth at the same time they cling to the safety of tradition and the familiar.
Kaye Gibbons has given us a story from a clear, strong perspective. This voice is the voice of women joined by family, social and physical environment, frustrations and resignations, duties and dreams. Hers is a voice not without hope, but with a determination that what life will be up to those living it. Those living it here are the women.
Ms. Boylan is a writer living in the Washington area.