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.
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
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.