Kaye Gibbons explores the life of a Southern woman in the last century in On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon.
Emma Garnet Tate Lowell (1830 - 1900) reflects on her life as she feels death at her door. She starts her life story at the age of twelve, when her father kills his slave for telling him a better method for killing a hog. He is saved by the freed slave Clarice, who raised him from age eight and is a figurative matriarch for this family.
Samuel P. Tate, Emma's father, is a self-made man who prides himself on being a powerful man in the pro-South movement before the War Between the States. In his desire to be accepted by society, he marries a girl from Savannah, Georgia from a family of old money but experiencing hard times. Without formal education, Samuel reads and studies art. Unfortunately, he values these relicts more than his family. In the atmosphere of wealth, Samuel is unable to hide his crudeness and hatred.
The eldest son Whately and Emma are intelligent and educated in a manner that threatens Samuel. Therefore, he is extremely hard and cruel to them. To the point that he banishes his eldest son to a certain death and yells curses on Emma's off-spring at her wedding.
There is a strong love story throughout Gibbons' book. Emma and her husband Dr. Quincy Lowell are soul mates. The New England doctor and his wife make their home in Raleigh, North Carolina. They raise their three daughter with love and care that Emma missed in her own childhood. She never returns to the Tate home in Virginia. Something she regrets after the death of her sweet mother. Another regret is Emma's relationship with her younger beautiful sister Maureen, who obeyed her father's wishes. After Samuel Tate turns away Maureen suitors, saying she can do better, Maureen finds herself an old maid at age twenty-three and condemned to taking care of her father's home.
As the war comes, Emma takes an active role in her husband's hospital and with the patients. The scenes are graphic, yet softened by Gibbons' power of humor. The stress of survival in the South is well-told.
Samuel Tate loses his home and is force to seek shelter from Emma. Finally, she is strong enough to face him and protect her family from his abuse. Emma discovers love for her sister Maureen, who proves to be much stronger in spirit than she imagined.
As the end of the war nears, death takes center stage -- death of the many soldiers, her father, Clarice, and finally her husband. Each play a part in making Emma stronger to face the future and come to terms with the past.
Kaye Gibbons tells a story of a woman with a full life.
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