A family of women, with different lives

May 31, 1993|By Rebecca Warburton Boylan | Rebecca Warburton Boylan,Contributing Writer

Kaye Gibbons' new novel offers idiosyncratic characters within a colorful landscape. "Already by her 20th birthday, my grandmother was an excellent midwife in great demand. Her black bag bulged with mysteries in vials. This occupation led her to my grandfather, whose job was operating a rope-and-barge ferry that traveled across the Pasquotank River."

Compared with the frenetic thriller-pace of most of today's fiction, Ms. Gibbons' wise, reflective novels about strong Southern women make her a true storyteller ("Ellen Foster," "A Virtuous Woman" and "A Cure for Dreams"). Her folklorist voice lends authority to fascinating truths about human nature. She offers compelling page-turners, but also invigorates the readers' sensibility toward people's interrelationships.

"Charms for the Easy Life" takes place during the late 1800s through the mid-1900s in Ms. Gibbons' native North Carolina. The main characters are a grandmother, Charlie Kate; her daughter, Sophia; and her granddaughter, Margaret. These women are bonded by blood, although their strengths are quite different, resulting from their distinct generations and the relationships each has with the other two women.

Charlie Kate is a strong-willed, brilliant, pioneering midwife whose natural wit, courage and passion in caring for people save lives that more traditional science cannot. Well-read both in literature (William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf) and in historical nonfiction (Robert E. Lee), this matriarch vibrates with life. Charlie Kate seems to "grow energy" to meet the demands of her fellow creatures. Her wisdom, love and imagination reveal truths, heal souls, and even improve the quality of others' lives.

Around Charlie Kate's unique feminism, Ms. Gibbons spins a web of conflicts. Sophia inherits the stubborn determinism of her mother, but focuses it on finding and committing to a husband who will respect as well as love her. Sophia doesn't have her mother's physical stamina nor her boundless compassion for others. However, she better understands that nourishing the quiet things inside people creates peaceful souls.

Witnessing the different styles of relating to people that this mother and daughter have ultimately helps us appreciate both. Charlie Kate's strengths help more people, but her outspoken aggressiveness sometimes hurts her. Sophia, more self-centered and sensitive, is also often better able to identify and reach that which is lastingly important.

When she falls deeply in love with Mr. Bailey, she is able to forgive his weakness regarding an incident with his former wife (though she is explicit in her demands that he change his behavior and commit himself totally to her if this is what he wants). The wedding occurs immediately, assuring the family of a renewed joy.

Raised without a father by two independent women and living through World War II as a young woman, Margaret has an approach to life that is complicated by challenges distinct from those of her mother and grandmother. Like her grandmother, Margaret is an avid reader. As the novel's narrator, she is a keen observer of people, events and places. Considered a brilliant but undriven student by her high school teachers, Margaret refuses their urgings to apply to the best colleges.

She doesn't rule out seeking a higher education in the future, but she has other priorities to fulfill and the need to seek the wisdom of her most beloved teacher, her grandmother. Margaret begins work in a veterans' hospital, where the head doctor is a great admirer of her grandmother. Margaret writes letters for, and reads to, wounded men. Here she finds a man with whom she shares love and trust.

According to Ms. Gibbons, to survive is to draw breath, but to live is to work much harder. For to live is to know one's own soul, to be true to it and to find out how it connects to the souls of others.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Charms for the Easy Life"

Author: Kaye Gibbons

Publisher: Putnam

Length, price: 254 pages, $19.95

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