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Sights Unseen

Overview

Kaye Gibbons has long been known as an inventive and artful writer who can traverse the rocky terrain of intimate family experience with sure, graceful, and inspiring steps. Now, in a poignant tale of a child searching for a place in her mother's heart among the hopes and fears that are buried there, Gibbons moves us once again. In Hattie Barnes, a child grows up by coming to terms with two worlds - the private one inside her house, where her mother is unpredictable, elusive, adoring, and adored, and the public ...
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Overview

Kaye Gibbons has long been known as an inventive and artful writer who can traverse the rocky terrain of intimate family experience with sure, graceful, and inspiring steps. Now, in a poignant tale of a child searching for a place in her mother's heart among the hopes and fears that are buried there, Gibbons moves us once again. In Hattie Barnes, a child grows up by coming to terms with two worlds - the private one inside her house, where her mother is unpredictable, elusive, adoring, and adored, and the public one of her small North Carolina town, in which her mother is politely known as "the Barnes woman with all the problems."

In potent prose, Sights Unseen tells the story of the troubled relationship between Hattie Barnes and her elusive mother, Maggie, known by their neighbors as "that Barnes woman with the problems." Plagued by Maggie's suicidal lows and delirious highs, Hattie struggles to find a place in her mother's heart. From the bestselling author of Charms fo the Easy Life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
``Both forgiving and healing are true arts,'' says Hattie Barnes, the narrator of Gibbons's moving novel; readers will be thoroughly in thrall to her clear, true voice and to the poignant story she tells. In flashback, Hattie describes the summer and fall of 1967, when she was 12 and living in Bend of the River, N.C., and when her beautiful, psychotically volatile mother, Maggie, was temporarily committed to the psychiatric ward at Duke University. A near-miracle occurs: for the first time in nearly two decades, Maggie becomes stabilized on medication. And, for the first time in her life, Hattie experiences a mother who relates to, touches and cares for her. Gibbons tells this story of family dislocation and crisis in restrained prose of unflinching clarity, with a honing eye for the small domestic details that conjure a time, place and emotional atmosphere. She conveys the hellish condition of a home where one parent is delusional and dangerous to herself and others; where the other is a full-time caretaker; and where the children, Hattie and her older brother Freddie, are lonely, anxious, bewildered victims. The fifth member of the family is the grandfather, Mr. Barnes, a manipulative bully who protects and spoils his daughter-in-law, and indulges her every manic whim from his ample wallet; he is the truly destructive element in the Barnes family's lives. The dynamics of this dysfunctional group, their balance precariously maintained by the calm ministrations of their black housekeeper, Pearl, are spelled out with tender understanding. Gibbons is equally sensitive when conveying the aberrant wiring of Maggie's jangled brain. This is her best novel since Ellen Foster, a haunting story that begs to be read in one sitting. BOMC and QPBC featured alternates. (Sept.)
Library Journal
The illustrious Gibbons burst onto the literary scene with her award-winning first novel, Ellen Foster, which was "written with the freshness of a child but the wisdom of an adult" (LJ 4/15/87). One hopes this will live up to that debut.
School Library Journal
YA-A story that chronicles the devastating effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Hattie's mother, a manic depressive, experiences erratic mood swings and irrational outbursts. She is incapable of nurturing her daughter, shopping, talking, or providing a role model for something as basic as cooking. Narrated by Hattie, the book is permeated with sadness and disillusionment because of her constant disappointment over the lost opportunities for bonding, her fears and embarrassment with peers, and her lack of mothering. The minor characters emerge as shadowy figures who must tiptoe around the mother's moods. Readers witness violent verbal attacks on Hattie's father and experience her brother's protective response of staying in his room. The entire family is grateful for the respite provided by the mother's institutionalization. The novel will elicit empathy in most YAs, providing information to those who have never experienced this type of family situation and reassurance to those who have.-Barbette Timperlake, R.E. Lee High School, Springfield, VA
Donna Seaman
ibbons writes seamless and resonant novels, the sort of fiction that wins hearts as well as awards. In her last book, "Charms for the Easy Life" (1993), a daughter recounts the lively life stories of her mother and grandmother; here, in this far more focused and subtle tale, a woman remembers her manic-depressive mother. Hattie is a quiet yet powerful narrator--calm, lucid, trustworthy, and, most importantly, forgiving. Almost dismissive of her own suffering both as a frightened, lonely child and as a grieving adult in the aftermath of her mother's death, Hattie chronicles her mother's dramatic battle with her demons in stark, indelible detail. Maggie's insidious illness rendered her incapable of performing the simplest motherly tasks. Luckily for her and her two children, she was blessed with a loyal and unceasingly patient husband, an amazingly resourceful and resilient housekeeper, and a wealthy, indulgent father-in-law. All were able to ride out the storms generated by Maggie's highs and lows, and Hattie and her precocious brother grew up strong and relatively unscarred. But oh, the stories, the madness, the fear, the shame. Gibbons has her quietly heroic narrator relate one wild and poignant incident after another, holding us rapt with wonder and empathy for Maggie and her loving, self-sacrificing family. This is a novel that deserves unwavering attention from start to finish, like a symphony or a sunset.
From Barnes & Noble
The good people of Bend of the River, North Carolina, politely refer to the beautiful Maggie Barnes as "the woman with all the problems.'' But young Hattie sees her mother as a captivating manic-depressive worth caring for. This is the tender and irresistibly funny story of a child's despairing love for her ill mother and the undying loyalty of a husband and extended family who go to great lengths to deal with a heartless woman's volatile mood swings.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780349107592
  • Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
  • Publication date: 1/1/1996
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback

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.

Biography

In 1987, a novel detailing the hardships and heartbreaks of a tough, witty, and resolute 11-year-old girl from North Carolina found its way into the hearts of readers all over the country. Ellen Foster was the story of its namesake, who had suffered years of tough luck and cruelty until finding her way into the home of a kind foster mother. Now, some nineteen years later, author Kaye Gibbons is finally bestowing the ultimate gift on her fans -- a continuation of Ellen's story.

As The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster begins, Ellen is now fifteen and living in a permanent household with her new adoptive mother. However, Ellen still feels unsettled an incomplete. Due to "the surplus of living" she had "jammed" into the years leading up to this point in her life, Ellen feels as though she is deserving of early admission into Harvard University. However, when this dream does not come to be, she re-embarks on her soul-searching journey, drawing her back to those she left behind in North Carolina.

While it took Gibbons nearly two decades to return to her most-beloved character, she never truly let go of Ellen Foster, even as she was penning bestsellers and critical favorites such as A Cure For Dreams and Charms For the Easy Life. "She is like a fourth child in my house," Gibbons said in an audio interview with Barnes&Noble.com. "Ellen is really like the kid who came to spend the weekend and stayed for twenty years."

Perhaps Gibbons's close association with the little orphan is the result of her own personal connection to the character. She claims that the Ellen Foster books were "emotionally" autobiographical and helped her to come to terms with the most painful experience of her life. When Gibbons was a child, her ailing mother committed suicide -- an event that placed her on the same pathless quest for love and belonging as Ellen. The untimely death of Gibbons's mother provided much of the impetus for her to revisit Ellen in a sequel. "Before I wrote The Life All Around Me," she confides, "I wasn't obsessed by my mother's suicide, but I was angry about it... and it's something that I thought about every few minutes of the day, and I always wondered what my life would have been like had she stayed. She had extremely awful medical problems and had just had open-heart surgery, and back then we didn't know what we know now about the hormonal changes after heart surgery and the depression that's so typical after it. After I wrote The Life All Around Me, I was amazed that I didn't think about it as much as I did, and I found that I'd forgiven her and understood it."

Now that she has set some of her old demons to rest with a novel that Booklist has called "compelling and unique," Gibbons has vowed not to allow another nineteen years to pass before completing the next chapter in Ellen's story. She ensures that Ellen's adventures are just beginning and ultimately intends to tell the tale of her entire life. "I decided to recreate the life of a woman in literature," Gibbons says. "I always liked to have a big job to do... and I thought about how marvelous it would be at the end of my life to have created a free-standing woman; a walking, talking all-but-breathing person on paper." Ambitious as this project may sound, a woman who has faced the challenges that Gibbons has shall surely prove herself to be up to the task.

Good To Know

Some fun facts from our interview with Gibbons:

"I wrote A Virtuous Woman while nursing two babies simultaneously, typing with my arms wrapped around them. I turned in stained pages but never called them to anyone's attention for fear they'd be horrified."

"I got a C on an Ellen Foster paper I rewrote for a daughter's tenth-grade English class."

"Writing serious work one wants to be read and to last isn't like a hobby that can be picked up and put down, it's a lovely obsession and a very demanding joy."

"Getting involved with things that don't matter in life will get in the way of it, as they will with anything, like family and home, that do matter."

"To unwind, I watch movies and do collages with old photographs from flea markets or make jewelry with my daughter, and the best way to clear my mind is to walk around New York, where I write most of the time in a tiny studio apartment with random mice I've named Willard and Ben, though I can't tell any of those guys apart!"

"My writing is powered by Diet Coke, very cold and in a can. If Diet Coke was taken off the market, I'm afraid I'd never write again!"

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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

Had I known my mother was being given electroconvulsive therapy while I was dressing for school on eight consecutive Monday mornings, I do not think I could have buttoned my blouses or tied my shoes or located my homework. I see myself fumbling with the snap on my skirt, trying to connect the sides, turning around in a circle like a cat chasing its tail. I was twelve, deemed too young to be told what was happening to her and in fact too innocent to surmise it.

There was a certain power in her healing that I, as a child, felt was beyond my capacity to comprehend, the way I, as an adult, cannot comprehend the largeness of the universe, the number of its stars, the heat of the sun, or the speed of light. I could not fathom how such a terribly sick woman could get well. Unless the doctors were using some sort of medical magic, I could not understand how pills and a changed environment were helping when her family's love had been of no use. I believe I was jealous of the hospital and her doctors. At home, she had simply endured her life. In the hospital, she began to flourish. She returned home an independent woman.

I worried about my own lack of influence in her life. If I had a little girl, I thought, I would look at her and discover ways to ground myself. I would find reasons to move out of the haze and into the clearing, where a husband, a sort, and a daughter could see me fully and welcome me. If I had a daughter as needy for my love as I was for hers, I could, I thought, will myself to be well for her sake. But Mother did not find that inspiration in me. Her illness, manic depression, was beyond her control. Along with my father, Imourned the inability to change her, to restore her. And I worried that later, when she had been back home with us for a while, the pills and the doctoring would stop working and she would revert to her old crazy ways, and once more, the voicesof my father, my brother, and me would be no more than background noise to her ravings. I worried that her wellness; would not take, the way vaccinations take. Life with Mother, I feared, would again be life with a stranger, a changeable stranger.

Because of her illness, it was impossible for her to be with us all the time. However, I always maintained the notion that I deserved a mother and would someday have mine. Instead of playing solitaire at the kitchen table while Pearl, our cook and housekeeper, fixed dinner, I would deal a hand of old maid or spades with my mother. She would join me in my life. I hoped for that even in the worst of times. As much as Pearl mothered me, she never let me forget for a minute that I had my own mother upstairs resting or in that hospital, and someday all would be well in our household. I am drawn to know why and how I never abandoned the ideal of a mother. She gave me ample opportunity to ostracize her completely. Why did I "turn out"? Why did my brother "turn out"?

Mother was depressed almost always, and her sadness was fractured only by wild, delusional turns of mind, with brief periods of stability that were celebrated and remembered by my family as though they were spectacular occurrences, like total eclipses or meteor showers. Had she not crashed to a halt in 1967, 1 would never have known her. I would have been raised wholly by my father and Pearl, and I would have spoiled my life trying to mitigate the ill effects her absence might have forced on me.

A girl cannot go along motherless without life's noticing, taking a compensatory tuck here and there in the heart and in the mind, letting out one seam or another whenever she is threatened by her loneliness. I could have lurched on ahead to adulthood, straining to be a good girl, not ever learning what to do when my own children were placed in my arms. My instinct might have been to ignore my responsibility for them the way my mother had initially relinquished responsibility for me. The children might have had to wait for me to find my way, as I had had to wait for my mother, and they might not have been as patient. My patience came from a deep longing for an ideal, and had I not pitied my mother, I would have stopped waiting for her, given up on her and ranged about for love elsewhere. But we caught each other just in time, right on the edge of my puberty. She pulled me back from the rim of an abyss. Just when I should have been growing away from my mother, we moved toward each other. When I should have been running out of the house with the screen door slamming in my wake, I was crawling into her arms. Boys, when they finally took notice of me, had to wait for my mother and me to learn each other, to learn our habits and our ways.

Mother died five years ago, right after I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter. She was well by then, bolstered by fifteen years of medication and therapy for her manic depression. My brother, Freddy, and I had gone to help her and my father one quiet Sunday afternoon as they cleaned his childhood belongings out of the Bames family homeplace. My father's father had left the house to his sister-in-law, Miss Josephine Woodward, as a life estate. Although my parents preferred to say that Mr. Bames and Miss Woodward "kept company," my Aunt Menefee, who was with us that day, said they were "involved." Aunt Menefee's husband, my father's brother,...

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide:
The discussion topics, autobiography and suggested reading list that follow were developed for your group's enhanced enjoyment and understanding of Kaye Gibbons's SIGHTS UNSEEN.

About this Book:
SIGHTS UNSEEN is an unforgettable tale of unconditional love. Brilliantly written in the form of a memoir, the novel recounts the story of a Southern family's desperate attempt to achieve normalcy in the midst of a mother's manic- depressive illness. In powerful prose, Hattie Barnes recollects on her childhood and her deeply convicted relationship with her mother Maggie, who is known in their small North Carolina town as "the Barnes woman with all the problems."

As one turbulent episode leads to another and Maggie's dramatic manic spells are followed by periods of sedation, young Hattie continues to long for her mother to become well and to return the intense love Hattie feels for her. Only as an adult can Hattie begin to understand the relentless emotional upheavals withstood by her family and to know the hopes and fears of the beautiful, troubled woman who was her mother. In Hattie's haunting, tranquil voice, the wisdom of an accomplished woman illuminates the experiences or a sensitive girl with immediacy and poignancy.

Praise for this book:
"Vivid. . .compelling--an arresting novel.... This is a story about the quality, not the quantity, of a life. It's a story about change and hope, compassion and healing." --The Boston Sunday Globe

"Astonishingly original...moving and evocative...beautifully crafted and intense."--People

"A rich stew of years...Ms. Gibbons's last novel, Charms for the EasyLife, found the large audience her work deserves, but I like this book even better. It is more intense, more vibrant, both richer and stranger.--The New York Times Boston Review

For Discussion:
1. The title SIGHTS UNSEEN is wonderfully evocative and can be interpreted as having different meanings for each of the novel's main characters. In what ways did Maggie's illness limit her vision, and what did it cause her to miss? What sights were unseen by Hattie as a child, and how did this affect her development? What remained unseen by Hattie's father, and how did these instances of "blindness" affect his family? Which other characters experienced "sights unseen?" How did the family's hidden experiences isolate them from the community?

2. Hattie draws a brilliant comparison between some of her family members and a set of magnets (p. 154-155) to understand the simultaneous repulsion and attraction that complicated the relationships she experienced and witnessed. How does her analogy illuminate the relationship between Hattie and her mother? Freddy and Maggie? Maggie and her husband.

3. Hattie writes, "Had I known my mother was being given electro-convulsive therapy while I was dressing for school on eight consecutive Monday mornings, I do not think I could have buttoned my blouse or tied my shoes or located my homework" (p. 3). Why would a 12-year-old girl have been so overwhelmed by this information, and how do you think it would have changed the way she related to her mother upon her return from the hospital? How could this knowledge have affected Hattie's ability to cope with illness (her own, her children's, others') in her future?

4. Although the novel is written from Hattie's point of view, the author succeeds in providing a thorough and fascinating portrayal of Freddy's character. While Hattie writes that "Freddy's maturity was inchoate" (p. 162), what do we as readers know about Maggie's effect on his sexual development? His obsessive commitment to academic excellence? His emotional inaccessibility?

5. The book's presentation of Maggie's manic depression is extremely powerful. By examining the description of one of her manic episodes at Hattie's sixth birthday party (p. 84-87), discuss the techniques the author uses to achieve impact. What other narrative devices could the author have used, and why would they have been less successful?

6. Mr. Barnes is as dark and conflicted a character as any in recent fiction. Examine how his coldness and violence influence the personalities of his sons and his grandchildren. Why does he behave so differently toward Maggie, and does this special treatment help or hurt the family?

7. Hattie writes, "I wanted Maggie Barnes, the woman with all the problems, to turn into my mother" (p. 93). What expectations do many of us have of our mothers, and are they fair? Is Hattie ultimately satisfied with or disappointed in her mother once she has recovered?

8. Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Menefree are described respectively by Hattie as having "the look of a man who never gets to go anywhere" (p. 144) and the kind of woman who drives men to other women" (p. 147). What importance do they have in the novel, and how do they influence young Hattie's understanding of relationships between men and women?

9. How did Hattie's family life contribute to her becoming a girl who "knew better than to need anything" (p. 135)? Why can it be so harmful for girls to be taught to be "good" and not to demand what they want or need?

10. Young Hattie was continuously frustrated by her ability to "get through" to Maggie and influence bad behavior, and she writes, "If I had a little girl, I thought, I would look at her and discover ways to ground myself" (p. 4). How is Hattie able to maintain such strong love for Maggie even though her mother disappoints her time after time? How does Hattie's relationship with her mother affect the ways she later mothers her own children?

11. Hattie writes, "I had such a backlog of things to say to [Maggie] that picking one became an insurmountable task" (p. 156). Why do Hattie and Maggie remain strangers even after Maggie's illness is under control? How does Freddy contribute to the two women's emotional distance?

12. As Hattie reflects on her past, she wonders, "Why did I 'turn out'?" Why did my brother 'turn out'?" (p. 5) How do you think both children achieved success despite their early trauma?

13. Hattie writes, "Pearl was my salvation" (p. 67). What role does Pearl play in Hattie's and Freddy's lives? In Maggie's? How would it have affected the family if Pearl's caregiving responsibilities had been handled by Frederick? By Aunt Menefree?

About the Author:
"Some people might give up their second-born to write as well as Kaye Gibbons," wrote Time magazine of her novel, Charms For The Easy Life, a New York Times bestseller. Her other novels. Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman and A Cure For Dreams, have garnered awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Chicago Tribune and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. She has three daughters and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband.

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