On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon

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Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, a plantation owner's daughter, grows up in a privileged lifestyle, but it's not all roses. Her family's prosperity is linked to the institution of slavery, and Clarice, a close and trusted family servant, exposes Emma to the truth and history of their plantation and how it brutally affected the slave population.

Her father, Samuel P. Tate, has an aggressive and overpowering persona that intimidates many people -- including Emma. But she refuses to ...

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Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, a plantation owner's daughter, grows up in a privileged lifestyle, but it's not all roses. Her family's prosperity is linked to the institution of slavery, and Clarice, a close and trusted family servant, exposes Emma to the truth and history of their plantation and how it brutally affected the slave population.

Her father, Samuel P. Tate, has an aggressive and overpowering persona that intimidates many people -- including Emma. But she refuses to conform to his ideals and marries a prominent young doctor. Together they face the horrors of the Civil War, nursing wounded soldiers, as Emma begins the long journey toward her own recovery from the terrible forces that shaped her father's life.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
A master storyteller...Margaret Mitchell's blunderbuss epic...can't hold a sweet-potato candle to these vivid pages.
Charles Frazier
Horace said that our stories should aim to instruct and delight...Kaye Gibbons has achieved both on every page.
Portland Oregonian
A novel that will have been worth the wait for Gibbon's fans or anyone else with a passionate interest in the Civil War.
San Antonio Express-News
Haunting...a rare jewel...Kaye Gibbons has gone from being a wonderful, fascinating novelist to a national treasure.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
An occasion for even more accolades.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A plea for racial tolerance is the subtext of Gibbons's estimable new novel, her first foray into historical fiction. Like her previous books (Ellen Foster, 1997, etc.), it is set in the South, but this one takes place during the Civil War era.

Now 70 and near death, Emma Garnet Tate begins her account by recalling her youth as a bookish, observant 12-year-old in 1842, living on a Virginia plantation in a highly dysfunctional family dominated by her foulmouthed father, a veritable monster of parental tyranny and racial prejudice. Samuel Tate abuses his wife and six children but he also studies the classics and buys paintings by old masters. Emma's long-suffering mother, of genteel background and gentle ways, is angelic and forgiving; her five siblings' lives are ruined by her father's cruelty; and all are discreetly cared for by Clarice, the clever, formidable black woman who is the only person Samuel Tate respects. (Clarice knows Samuel's humble origins and the dark secret that haunts him, which readers learn only at the end of the book.)

Gibbons authentically reproduces the vocabulary and customs of the time: Emma's father says "nigger" while more refined people say Negroes. "Nobody said the word slave. It was servant," Emma observes. At 17, Emma marries one of the Boston Lowells, a surgeon, and spends the war years laboring beside him in a Raleigh hospital. Through graphic scenes of the maimed and dying, Gibbons conveys the horror and futility of battle, expressing her heroine's abolitionist sympathies as Emma tends mangled bodies and damaged souls. By the middle of the book, however, Emma's narration and the portrayal of Clarice as a wise and forbearing earthmother lack emotional resonance. Emma, in fact, is far more interesting as a rebellious child than as a stoic grown woman. One finishes the novel admiring Emma and Clarice but missing the compelling narrative voice that might have made their story truly moving.

Library Journal
Though she remains focused on the South and has created yet another affecting heroine, Gibbons's book is something of a departure: Emma Garnett Tate was born before the Civil War, and before her long life is over (she tells this story from the vantage point of old age), she'll head north and marry a Boston Lowell. Emma's father is, predicably, astonishingly cruel to his family and slaves alike, her mother long-suffering, and Emma herself "too eager to know matters that would do her no good in making a marriage."

Gibbons gets all the historical details just right, and the novel opens with a murder that effectively sums up the contradictions of antebellum culture, but in the end this tale does not draw readers in like Ellen Foster and other vintage Gibbons works. Emma's voice is a bit still, a bit bland, though Gibbons has enough power left over to invest her with some very moving moments. Buy where Gibbons is popular.
--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Library Journal
Though she remains focused on the South and has created yet another affecting heroine, Gibbons's book is something of a departure: Emma Garnett Tate was born before the Civil War, and before her long life is over (she tells this story from the vantage point of old age), she'll head north and marry a Boston Lowell. Emma's father is, predicably, astonishingly cruel to his family and slaves alike, her mother long-suffering, and Emma herself "too eager to know matters that would do her no good in making a marriage."

Gibbons gets all the historical details just right, and the novel opens with a murder that effectively sums up the contradictions of antebellum culture, but in the end this tale does not draw readers in like Ellen Foster and other vintage Gibbons works. Emma's voice is a bit still, a bit bland, though Gibbons has enough power left over to invest her with some very moving moments. Buy where Gibbons is popular.
--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
-- Geoff Rotunno, Tri-Mix Magazine, Goleta, CA
-- Geoff Rotunno, Tri-Mix Magazine, Goleta, CA

School Library Journal
YA-In 1900, Emma Garnet Tate Lowell tells her life story, beginning when she was 12 in antebellum Virginia. Her father, who used brutality and fear to intimidate family, slaves, and servants, killed a slave in a fit of anger. The plantation household was managed by Clarice, a free black woman of courage and loyalty. Emma Garnet's younger sister Maureen was both dutiful and eager to learn the graces that attracted a suitable husband. Independent of spirit, disdainful of housewifely skills, intelligent and opinionated, Emma Garnet determined to escape from Seven Oaks. Details of her reminiscences are sketchy at times, but she met and married Quincy Lowell of the Boston Lowells, a surgeon and everything her father was not. Her mother unselfishly urged her daughter to take Clarice with her to help them get settled in Raleigh, where Quincy planned to set up his medical practice. Clarice never returned, but devoted herself to the Lowells and their three daughters. Emma Garnet tells her story with unflinching honesty, revealing a complex character who changed from a self-absorbed and indulged child to a loving wife and mother. She eventually opened her home to wounded Confederate soldiers and found new purpose and meaning in her life by helping others. YAs will find Emma Garnet, Maureen, Clarice, and Quincy to be fascinating and endearing characters whose flaws as well as strengths are revealed as the story unfolds. The author's picture of life in the Civil War South is vivid and unsentimental, and her characters are drawn with clarity and sympathy.-Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
Amy Boaz
"Having survived my father and the war, I am capable of anything," calmly observes Kaye Gibbons's latest narrator, looking back at her life on the occasion of her 70th birthday. Emma Garnet Tate is a level-eyed southern lady who comes of age in the years leading up to the Civil War. She might never have had cause to question the rightness of her pampered, genteel upbringing had she not witnessed the aftermath of her father's brutal murder of one of his slaves on that fateful day when she was 12.

Samuel P. Tate is a "fire-eater," the prosperous planter of Seven Oaks and politician whose rabid push for states' rights and personal cruelty are well known across Virginia. He is the kind of master who can slice open a black man's throat one afternoon then serenely read himself to sleep with Voltaire; a common man who buys himself a well-bred but impecunious wife at a "fire sale" and pays an artist to alter a priceless painting of a fox hunt to include his own likeness; a father who takes his children to watch public executions as part of their moral edification. He is a stinker in the mold of the drunken, abusive father of Gibbons's first novel, Ellen Foster, but twice as dangerous because he fancies himself a gentleman. He is, in short, the worst face of the antebellum South.

In the cool, sagacious prose for which Gibbons is known, Emma Garnet remembers watching as her father, still holding the bloody knife, denies his guilt to the assembled gang of slaves, "I did not mean to kill the nigger!" he shouts. This shocking opening scene of the novel will become the haunting memory of her childhood. Emma Garnet remarks to herself that even then, "I knew that my father was a liar."

Emma Garnet will bring to mind other gentle-souled, yet fiercely determined voices from Gibbons's slender but substantial opus -- the successive generations of women in A Cure for Dreams, the needy young wife Ruby Pitt Woodrow of A Virtuous Woman, and the wounded, blunt-spoken Ellen Foster. Again, Gibbons demonstrates her skill at turning her narrator inside out so that her story offers itself across the page in seemingly effortless rhythm.

Emma Garnet has learned to read books not meant for ladies thanks to her devoted, ill-fated brother Whately, who is eventually hounded out of Seven Oaks by their father; she has learned to balance her father's evil irascibility with the gracious kindness of her beloved mother, also maltreated at her father's hands; and she has learned to respect all of humanity through the indomitable example of the long-standing chief cook, Clarice, a freed black woman who has gleaned through time the secrets of Samuel Tate's soul -- or "where his heart ached." And when it is Emma Garnet's time to marry, she chooses a liberal northern doctor, Quincy Lowell, of the real-life Boston Brahmin family. It proves to be the wisest decision of her life, not only in settling her conscience when caught up in the struggle that devastates North and South but also because it is through Quincy's undying love that Emma Garnet masters the ability to tell the truth:

"Say it as you spoke it to me," he urges constantly, shoring her up. "Face it all dry-eyed. Say it. Say it. Speak of the South's rebellion and your own."

Disappointingly, the emotional vortex that held so fast in the beginning of the novel gradually collapses with the dreary accumulation of wartime detail. As Emma Garnet and Quincy work side by side to operate on the wounded Confederate soldiers and turn their Raleigh home over to the needy and sick, Samuel Tate arrives, a refugee from General McClellan's campaigns into Virginia. He is, of course, fit to be tied by the turn in events, spouting profanities and jotting off outrageous letters to the editor against the abolitionists (who are his own family members). The angry, spitting exchanges among the three reach a comical pitch, and when Quincy, who represents the reasonable, steady voice in the novel, pours India ink over Samuel Tate's costly Titian, Gibbons has leaned one too many times on our sympathies.

She excels, however, at her assimilation of the spoken language of the time. One would be hard-pressed to find anachronisms here. In one instance, Emma Garnet complains that "for 'slave,' there was 'servant.' For the war dead, the newspaper would head the column, 'Those Passed at Manassas.'" Father's execrations are the utterings of a brute; the education of girls ensures that they speak "pleasantly ignorant of ideas." But Emma Garnet indeed revolts. Her life pursuit could be said to be the active resistance against the pernicious and hypocritical manipulation of language, and thereby truth. "The portrayal of death and sin, and I have seen a surfeit of both," she observes in her characteristically clear-eyed fashion, "require that I employ the more direct language of Dante than the circumlocution of Walter Scott."

Amy Boaz is a writer and editor in New York City. Her short fiction is upcoming in Virgin Fiction.

Kirkus Reviews
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, ne‚ 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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060797140
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Kaye  Gibbons

Kaye Gibbons is the author of four previous novels: Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman, A Cure for Dreams, and Charms for the Easy Life. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and five children.
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    1. Hometown:
      Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 5, 1960
    2. Place of Birth:
      Nash County, North Carolina
    1. Education:
      Attended North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978-1983
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I did not mean to kill the nigger! Did not mean to kill him!

This my father shouted out loud on slaughter day of 1842. I heard him from the kitchen, where I was shaping sausage into little rounds, a pleasant job for a girl of no domestic training. I ran to the kitchen door at his bellowing and wondered at his raging, bloody presence, but I did not go to him. His arms were uplifted as though he were prophet to the clutch of Negroes who stood about him, a hand still holding a blade. I recall, fifty-eight years thence, my extreme horror of recognition that the man standing underneath the spready sycamore had probably done wrong, that he had probably murdered with vile intent, and that all my night-fears of atrocities incited by the Turner rebellion would come true now--for vengeance, my family and I would be slit ear to ear in our sleep. That was the class of talk we heard those days, all I overheard through closed parlor doors. Even among the children of the James a rumor abounded, repeated as hard fact, of a Negro who had murdered a farmer and then dipped the man's wife and children in his blood. I was of an impressionable nature, and my heart quailed within me each time I heard the tale told. The servants will rise, and they will cut our throats, and they will laugh and drink red whiskey and go about with our bloomers on their heads.

Weighing the two, my surety that my father had indeed meant to kill whoever had ailed him and the prospect of Negroes murdering us all in the moonlight, I had more faith in the Negroes, more trust in their inherent and collective sense of right. Even then, at twelve, I knew that myfather was a liar. Although he had served two terms in the legislature and was known all over Virginia to be an honest, upright, hearty, and earnest Episcopalian, I knew he had a dark secret. Children see into the recesses of the soul. They are rarely fooled, seldom duped save at rummy and shell games, so it was not extraordinary for me to stand in that doorway, while my father demanded of God and a brace of Negroes that they acknowledge his innocence, to see that he was lying to all, for I knew him. I was not now struck down in sudden disillusionment of a beloved parent, for I had heard him delivering my mother his fury in the nights.

Like the servants, we, his children, were beneath him, and so we were left oftentimes standing with his lies in our hands like baffling presents, not knowing what we were to do with this collection of things, his words, whether they should be used or displayed or hidden like a broken toy in a corner of the nursery armoire. I did not mean to kill the nigger! Was I to trick the words apart the way a patient mother will sit and tease the knot out of a tangled necklace? Were they to be left for when I was older, the way so much of my life then was lived, in a knowingly, deliberately superficial fashion, until I could nurse the time and free peace of mind to revisit and decipher what was happening to me and around me? I heard Clarice, the chief cook and housekeeper, behind me moaning, heard as if in half-sleep, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my goodness," but I could not arouse any response, any spoken word. I felt heavy in my body, and over and again in my head, one idea whirled a dervish--I do not know what to make of this now, because I am too young. I am too young for this. I did not believe I would ever forgive my father for making me withstand more than I could bear.

Always, in a moment of import, such as the day memory has now furnished me, Father seemed to speak the utter and ardent truth because he was so very loud and so commanding in his bearing and demeanor. His style was bullish, though he never seemed desperate that he be believed. On that awful day, and at every other time when his method or intent might be questioned, he struck a tone of extreme willfulness, steady and wrathful, without any urgent pleading or begging to be understood, to be followed into whatever mendacious reckoning he might construct. And that is what he was doing as Clarice and I watched him. He was constructing, building a notion of thorough blamelessness that whoever had witnessed the killing or might hear of it later would let him own as a certain verity. No, he did not mean to kill the Negro. Perhaps, even, the Negro asked to be killed, by his insolence or indolence or impudence, the three faults that Father trusted to be at the heart of the reason why the race was inferior and not included in the tenet that all men are created equal and seen as such by the eyes of God. But still, he found it necessary to say again and again to the people who ganged about him underneath the spready sycamore--I did not mean to kill the nigger!

When he was tired of hearing himself say it, tired of waiting for what did not come--the Negroes to say, "Of course you did not"--he told them all to go to Hell and then jabbed the knife into the tree and strode toward the kitchen. He had on hogkilling clothes, wool and muslin with a skin over-jacket, and they were bloody with the gore of man or pig--l could not tell where one stain started and the next began. He came blowing in hard through the door, like a tempest raging into an open window.

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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, June 8th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Kaye Gibbons to discuss ON THE OCCASION OF MY LAST AFTERNOON.

Moderator: Welcome to the barnesandnoble.com author Auditorium. We are excited to welcome Kaye Gibbons, who is joining us to discuss her new book, ON THE OCCASION OF MY LAST AFTERNOON. Welcome, Kaye Gibbons! Thank you for joining us online this evening. How is everything up there?

Kaye Gibbons: Everything is fine. I'm cramped in the back of a jet from Chicago to San Francisco, hoping that Post Rio isn't closed by the time we get there.

Jennifer from New York City: With all of the awards that you have won, how do you keep a level head?

Kaye Gibbons: I have three children -- three little girls who are 9, 10, and 13 -- and they keep me grounded. When I got home from a heady first-week book tour, I realized the kids didn't care how many people were at the readings or how many books were sold, insofar that it didn't affect their Gap shopping. They wanted to hug, watch TV, read magazines, etc. That is what keeps me grounded. I was talking to my husband about why I cannot relax, because when I am not doing the job, I am running the house. My insistence on being a housewife as well as a career woman keeps me balanced.

Sarah from Greenwich, CT: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Kaye Gibbons: I knew as a child that I had a gift that the other children didn't get, and because I was born dirt-poor with a suicidal mother and alcoholic father, I feel like I deserved to have that present in my cradle. I thought I would grow up and teach literature. I didn't think that people made livings at being writers unless they were dead or from Mississippi. But I have always used books as a haven, and today I bought a book I always wanted to read, MAGIC MOUNTAIN, and I feel the same way as when I was eight. In some way or another I would always write, but I never thought I would make my living doing it exclusively. I don't cut hair on the side, I don't teach, I don't give manicures. I write for a living, which is sometimes hard for some people to understand, especially here in the South, where it is not expected from a woman.

Rachel from Jackson Hole, Wyoming: I write, but I find that if I make anything resemble my own family members, they will get upset. How do you work around this problem?

Kaye Gibbons: I never write anything negative about family members I live in the house with. I have bad aunts who mistreated me as a child, and they got what they deserve. In my new book, I use my children and husband as the characters in the book. It was very handy. And I don't write about their warts, because I love them and I don't see their faults. A novelist can't let herself worry about that; the point of writing is not to replicate life but filter reality through the imagination and have an end product that is fabricated and constructed yet somehow miraculously more real than the original reality. Our job is to create an alternate reality. You can't listen to their egos blowing around. Don't worry about them.

Susie from Lebanon, OR: Thank you for taking my question. How do you go about making your stories so detailed?

Kaye Gibbons: When I talk and when I write, I try to avoid the abstract. I am drawn to detail in writing as a way of offering density and showing rather than telling. I couldn't imagine something more unbearable than having somebody asking me to write about an abstract like tenderness, with no examples of it, with no examples of chimps picking lice out of a little chimp's head. I would have to show examples of an emotion. When I pick up some books that come out of writing schools these days and read blather about abstract emotions with nothing linking it to the emotions of the human heart, I get demoralized and put the books down. I would much rather read a grocery list then the second volume of REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST. In the first volume, Proust uses details to plumb the mysteries of the human heart, and I think that is all a writer has any business doing. And we do that by sharing concrete details that are universal and that we all understand. That is how we recognize each other in fiction, not by generic blather as I said, but by those tiny elements that we know are human -- hangnails, dry skin, smeared lipstick, legs that need to be shaved, etc. That is how we know, and that is why detail is so important to me in fiction and in every book. I try to use more and more. I learned how with one book, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. I opened that book and said, "Damn -- that is how you do it."

Sharon from Gretna, LA: I don't have a question, more of a comment! I want to thank you for writing so many great novels. I think you are fantastic. I love ELLEN FOSTER.

Kaye Gibbons: Thank you very much. I will not be near Gretna but will be in Nashville in a couple of weeks, but I really appreciate that, especially now that a new book is out, and to find out what the reaction will be. To hear that takes away the anxiety, and I thank you very much.

Michael from Philadelphia: Do you find it more difficult to write from a child's point of view as opposed to an adult's perspective?

Kaye Gibbons: Yes, I do, because when I write from a child's point of view, I must express the highest aspirations and fears of humankind --love, death, hatred, anger, tenderness -- and I have to use a child's language; I can't use an adult's language. Stephen J. Gould writes about this when he writes about laymen. It is quite a trick to pull off and it is very difficult, so when I chose to tell ON THE OCCASION OF MY LAST AFTERNOON, I was glad that I could relax, because the qualities of a 60-year-old woman could match the depth and breath of her emotion. The hard thing to do is to write from the point of view of an elderly imbecile -- Forrest Gump. I learn how to manipulate first-person narrative by reading [other books]. The most profound an effect a book had on me was with THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Also PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN and CATCHER IN THE RYE.

Paul from New York City: I see that you thank Studs Terkel in your book. Are you a big Terkel fan? What is it about Studs that you are so fond of?

Kaye Gibbons: I'm fond of him personally. He is a friend from years ago, and I credit him with showing me the dignity of an ordinary man and ordinary woman talking about extraordinary times. I read his book THE GOOD WAR before I wrote CHARMS FOR THE EASY LIFE. For the first time, I heard people talking, and they weren't senators and military men of high rank; they were GIs and their wives. He appreciates the beauty of the language of the common man and has done nothing but champion that voice for his entire career. That is his legacy to us. Although I was on "Oprah," nothing will be beat being in a radio studio with Studs. BN online comes in a nice third.

Clare Dunbar from South Bend, Indiana: My book club just finished CHARMS FOR THE EASY LIFE. In 12 years of meeting every eight weeks, it was one of our all-time favorites. How did you arrive at the title?

Kaye Gibbons: I looked in the index of a folk-medicine handbook under different sorts of charms, and I was finding things like "Charms for wooing a jury," "Charms for removing warts." Then I saw "Charms for the easy life" -- it was the left hind foot of a white rabbit caught at midnight under a full moon by a Negro woman who has been married seven times.... I had to have it.

Linda from Stillwater, Oklahoma: How would you describe the experience of having two of your books chosen by Oprah?

Kaye Gibbons: It was life altering. I was doing as well in my career as I thought I should be. With my husband, we support a large family, and we were doing well. There were no material needs or wants. And then she called, and we were suddenly inundated with requests to do everything and everywhere. We are able to use part of the money for Books for Children -- we install libraries and orphanages -- and we were able to get a lot of that work done during the summer. My immediate response after the Oprah hoopla was shock. I was on the bestseller list before, so I knew how it felt, but to be sandwiched between Crichton and Grisham was debilitating. It was fun but stressful. I was in the last two months of finishing a book, and the "Ellen Foster" movie came out. The life of J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee started to look real good. I would empty voicemail without listening to it, and for a month, I left the house only to go out to eat. It was sort of like "Cheers," where everybody knew my name. I tried to reduce my life to its essentials. If not for my husband, I would have crashed during it. Ms. Winfrey told me it would change my life and told me what I could expect, and my word.... She just bought the movie rights to A VIRTUOUS WOMAN, and I am looking forward to it but don't want to be involved in it. The Oprah ordeal made me realize what I like, and that revolves around my home and family. I like that I don't now feel pressure to produce a new book every year. That is one of the most wonderful things about Oprah, is that through her recognition through my writing, it gave me a good year to become a benign Martha Stewart.

Lori from Providence, RI: I read that you were knighted for your contributions to French literature. Do you write in French, or was this simply for your translations?

Kaye Gibbons: The knighthood was for the translations. The books are widely taught in France, and they are written about critically. They do well commercially and academically. The same year I was knighted, so was Tina Turner, but I would trade my medals for her legs, if she wanted to swap. Columbo was also knighted that year, as well as Sharon Stone. I would take her legs too.

Joanne from Marlboro, MA: Are you touring for this book? Boston readings? Also, having written one of Oprah's first book club books, what are your thoughts on Oprah's phenomenal impact on book sales through her book club? Any thoughts on the matter?

Kaye Gibbons: I am going to Boston and will be at Waterstones on Exeter Street on June 26th at 7pm ET.

Simon from Eugene, OR: How do you decide what you are going to write? Do you plot everything out beforehand and have a specific outline, or do you just write as it comes?

Kaye Gibbons: I do both. Usually when I start to write a chapter, I get a note card and just sketch out what I think will happen, but nothing I feel I need to hold onto or that I feel bound to in any way. I like to be able to throw that note card away if it doesn't work out. Writing involves thinking hard. There is a thinking hard that is creative and productive, and then there is that that finger-biting, neurotic, got-to-know-what-will-happen-in-every-paragraph [thinking]. I think about writing the way I would mapping out my day. How many of us who are not account executives at Smith Barney know what we are doing every five minutes of the day? I have a plan, very sketchy, but I leave myself room to wonder -- just like how we get through the day. To me writing is a metaphor for life.

Margo from Washington, DC: Do you find other writers influential on your writing, or do you find life experience more influential? Or other arts, like music or painting?

Kaye Gibbons: Every book I have ever read has influenced what I write, and I don't read bad books -- if I read two pages of a book I don't like, I put it down. Life is too short to read an awful book. If I do read a bad book, it may damage me somehow, not just my writing but my spirit as well. I never got along very well with people who insist on reading books or bust. Van Morrison and Eric Clapton and the Beatles are influences on my writing. I listened to Eric Clapton's "Backlist" CD when I wrote the last draft of ON THE OCCASION. When Quincy tells his wife that to confront a social enemy, she has to walk into the rain and do it, I was listening to Eric Clapton's "Walk out in the Rain." I have friendships with writers, but we don't talk about writing. I had dinner with Barry Hannah, and we didn't talk about writing at all. The most horrible experience would be to be trapped at YADDO. Except in interviews or with my children and husband, I don't talk about writing. Every time someone in an audience asks me about my writing process, I have no answer. If I discovered what it was, it would leave me. Maybe there is some secret camp, like some survivalist camp, where everybody knows what the process is and I didn't get the manual, but I didn't get what it is.

Stacy from Wynnewood, PA: Do you ever go back and reread your earlier works?

Kaye Gibbons: I go back and reread, not out of pleasure or some delight, but when I do readings at colleges, I find it fun to dip back into books and read them. I also read them on audiotape. Sometimes I am surprised when I have no memory of when I wrote this life-changing metaphor for a character.... I do reread the books. I hear that John Updike is doing that these days. There are so many writers I want to read that I would feel odd if a neighbor caught me reading one of my books. When I had a picture taken the other day, a photographer wanted me to hold my new book up like I was reading it, but I didn't -- it was too calculated. That is how I feel about reading my old books.

PAC87@aol.com from xx: Are you a big fan of southern literature as a whole? Who are some of your favorites?

Kaye Gibbons: I am not fanatical about a great deal of writing that is coming out of the South right now, because of the subject matter. I don't care about strip shopping malls, I don't care about divorces and scandals in Sunday school. There is a certain edge about this new industrial South that I don't find very interesting. For me to write, there must be some evidence of pain, which I don't see. I see a grasping materialistic society -- everybody wants to live in Atlanta and drive a Lexus. What I do find interesting is southern history and politics. But if not for Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner, I would be working at Kinko's today.

Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Ms. Gibbons, and for giving such wonderful answers to the audience questions. Do you have any closing comments?

Kaye Gibbons: Thank you for reading, not only my books, but reading anything you can get your hands on. Very good books are out there, like MASON & DIXON and AMERICAN PASTORAL.... It is a beautiful summer to fill your body and mind with literature.

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Reading Group Guide


Emma Garnet Tate, the daughter of a rich plantation owner on the James River in Virginia, is the narrator of Kay Gibbons¹s extraordinary sixth novel, a journey into the past and into the heart of a woman. Although she lives a pampered life, wrapped in the love of her gentle mother and cared for by the warm and feisty servant Clarice, she must bear the crude dictates of her father, a self-made man who has acquired the trappings of wealth but remains marked by his humble origins and the dark secrets of his own childhood. Emma Garnet refuses to conform to the ideal of Southern womanhood, reading books supposedly not fit for a girl, disturbed by the "peculiar institution" of slavery, indifferent to developing the charms and wiles to attract a well-born Southern husband. When she marries Quincy Lowell, a doctor and the scion of a famous Northern family, her father ceases to communicate with her.

Accompanied by Clarice, she and Quincy settle in Raleigh, where their comfortable life is soon swept aside by the advent of the Civil War. Through the long years of strife, Emma Garnet nurses horribly wounded young men and watches as the ways of the Old South shatter around her. The war reaches deep into her life; when the conflict ends, both Quincy and Clarice succumb to its destructive powers. With her three daughters, Emma Garnet begins life anew in her husband¹s hometown of Boston. For her, however, there is only one true home, and she returns to Raleigh to help build a new South, in which all people are treated with respect and humanity. On the occasion of her last afternoon, exploring the poignant, horrific, and joyful events of more than fifty years, she faces death with equanimity, proud of her accomplishments, and at peace with herself.


Kaye Gibbons is the author of Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman, A Cure for Dreams, Charms for the Easy Life, and Sights Unseen. She has received numerous honors, including the Sue Kaufman Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a PEN/Revson Award. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.


"Despite the comings and goings of literary fashion, not much of real importance has changed since Horace said that our stories should aim to instruct and delight. Beginning with Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons has achieved both on every page. And she does it again here, strikingly, in a novel about the bright habits of mind required for survival‹‹and the high price paid for living on." CHARLES FRAZIER author of Cold Mountain


1. -As a prelude to this novel, Gibbons offers poetry by Allen Tate and Robert Lowell, poets who share her heroine¹s surnames. How do the poems foreshadow the events and mood of the novel? What do they, and the novel itself, reveal about the legacy of the Civil War?

2. -What insights do Emma Garnet¹s initial reaction to her father¹s murder of Jacob give you into the society in which she grew up? How does she conform to antebellum Southern beliefs and behavior, and in what ways does she defy them?

3. -Why, despite his impressive accomplishments as a self-educated man, is her father so hostile to his bookish son and so critical of Emma Garnet¹s interest in learning? Why does he prefer his daughter Maureen? What circumstances beyond his personal background influence the way he treats his children?

4. -Why doesn¹t Alice Tate protest her husband¹s behavior? What, if anything, could Emma Garnet have done to make her mother¹s life easier?

5. -Emma Garnet and Quincy acknowledge Clarice¹s freedom when they arrive in North Carolina, yet they tell the other servants, who are in fact free as well, that Clarice owns them. Is there any justification for their lie? Do you think Charlie, Mavis, and Martha would have remained with the Lowells, as Clarice did, had Emma Garnet and Quincy been honest with them from the beginning? Why do the three leave immediately when they learn the truth from Clarice?

6. -When war breaks out, why does Quincy refuse to take a commission but agree to assume command of a Southern hospital? Given his background and his beliefs, do you think he should have returned to the North? Why does Emma Garnet work so hard in the hospital despite her ambivalence about the Southern cause? Looking back many years later, she writes, "I still hold that it was a conflict perpetrated by rich men and fought by poor boys against hungry women and babies." Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of the Civil War? Is it true of every war?

7. -Do you feel any sympathy for Samuel Tate when he arrives in Raleigh after Seven Oaks is taken over? What does Quincy hope to accomplish by telling his father-in-law about the horrors he sees in the hospital every day and reading him newspaper reports about the battles that are devastating the Confederate army? What does Quincy¹s destruction of the Titian painting symbolize? Do you think that the means by which Samuel Tate dies can be justified?

8. -Just before she dies, Clarice reveals the terrible secret that shaped Samuel Tate¹s life. Would it have made a difference in their relationship if Emma Garnet had known the truth about her father earlier in life?

9. -What kind of life would Emma Garnet have had without Clarice? If she hadn¹t married Quincy? What particular strengths did she get from each of them, and how does she express what she learned in the life she creates for herself after their deaths?

10. -How does Emma Garnet¹s view of the Civil War differ from accounts you¹ve read in history books and gleaned from other novels or movies? Kaye Gibbons is from North Carolina; keeping that in mind, do you think the novel reflects a Southern woman¹s perspective, or does it embrace a broader point of view?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2010

    Excellent Novel with Complex Themes

    This novel is definitely for those who know something about the American Civil War, though you could enjoy it without specific knowledge. It is the archetypal historical fiction that calls to anyone who is interested in either history or how people dealt with historical situations. The author uses her characters to help the reader understand what is happening, but also to pull them into the lives of those characters. By the end of the novel you will be crying and laughing with Emma to the very last page.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2007

    An Afternoon's Read

    A book about the American Civil War, much of which is a standard grab bag of fictional antebellum plantation life. We're treated to the overbearing father, long-suffering mother, weak-willed brother and, of course, the indomitable house slave who takes charge of both house and family. Not much new. The real reason to read On Occasion is for its vivid protrayal of the hospital scenes during the war. I couldn't help recalling the famous shot in Gone With the Wind, in which the camera pulls back from on high, showing us an ever-widening scene of wounded and dying soldiers, row by grisly row. That scene takes place outside an Atlanta hospital. Gibbons takes us inside a Raleigh hospital where we're given an up-close view of shattered bodies, the tragic outfall of the war. This is the book's most powerful section. Unfortunately, the rest gets watered down by the heroine's calm, overly measured narration. It's a voice of emotional detachment and not terribly interesting. She is perfect, her husband is perfect, her daughters are perfect. All in all, On Occasion is a perfectly pleasant 'afternoon' read, hopefully not your last, but there's not a lot here.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2003

    This was my favorite from Kaye Gibbons

    I enjoyed the journey through Emma's extraordinary life. Emma was my favorite of all of Ms Gibbon's characters. I do find that all the fathers in Ms Gibbon's stories are of the worst sort, save Emma's loving husband Dr. Lowell. I love this author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2001

    student doing a project

    I thought this was a really good book, but I found it hard to understand. The person telling the story (Emma Garnet) has a scattered mind and is hard to follow at times. I think this book is better for older readers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2001

    Kaye Gibbons Is An Excellent Storyteller

    Have you ever read a book and wondered what happened to the characters? Not this book! Kaye Gibbons takes us through the extrordinary life of our heroine, Emma Garnet Tate Lowell. Finishing this book, all questions are answered and there is a sense of fulfillment. Emma is an inspiring heroine. She is more concerned with her books and ideas than her reflection in the mirror. How refreshing! Thank you, Ms. Gibbons. Just as Ellen Foster has stayed close to my heart, Emma will remain with me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2001

    Wonderful and mesmerizing

    This book gives the reader the impression that a loving grandmother really IS recounting her past 80 years. I was entranced with the perspective of Emma Garnet. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has interest in the Civil War or the 19th Century in Raleigh or the South.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2001

    good, perhaps but lacking in continuous action

    This book was, no doubt, excellent . However it was very lacking in continuous action to compell the reader to read on . Even if there was action, it was buried in an overdose of figurative language and oceans of Emma's useless thoughts and speculations that lead you off topic very easily . Very soon, I found my self reading, not a novel, but thousands of scattered words that took hours to comprehend . Although literal comprehension is one of my strong points, I found it difficult in this book . I suppose that if you got into the main story, you would come to enjoy this book very much . However, I do not reccomend a 13 year old (such as myself) to read this book . You will only find one thing interesting about this book, and that is the perculiar dreams that arise when you fall asleep with your head buried in the book .

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    Posted August 16, 2011

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    Posted January 7, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2009

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