Kaye Gibbons weaves marvelous prose from the emotional havoc hateful fathers stir in their daughters. But as in Ellen Foster a tour de force told from the perspective of a young girl bounced from one unfit home to the next, who possesses remarkable candor, even humor the daughters in Gibbons's stories are survivors. On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon is the story of Emma Garnet Tate, the daughter of Southern plantation owner Samuel P. Tate, "man of means, by God," who is fighting an eternal battle to overcome his lowly beginnings. A self-made man, he is fiercely jealous of his eldest son's opportunities. Whately confounds his father by rejecting his future inheritance: "I do not think I will ever live here," Whately demurs. "If I take up your living, I will take up your Negroes. Thank you though." Instead, Whately loves literature, a passion he instills also in Emma Garnet, further infuriating their father he craves a daughter with great feminine charms, not the bright and competent young woman Emma Garnet is becoming.
To Tate's mortification, Emma Garnet marries a young doctor, Quincy Lowell, of a prominent "Yankee" family from Boston. The couple moves to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Emma Garnet lives with the greatest peace and joy she has ever known for a time.
The Civil War is on the horizon, and the Lowells are in the thick of it. As the bloodshed mounts Emma Garnet joins her husband in the hospital tending to the soldiers and later moves into their home (the piano is Quincy's impromptu operating table). The Lowell home becomes a tight operation, run by Emma Garnet and Clarice a cherished slave from Emma Garnet's childhood whom she and Lowell freed and hired for wages. Though common throughout the war, there's a subtle irony in Clarice's care of the soldiers who would die for the South's right to own slaves.
Never melodramatic, the story captures the lie of the war that there's honor in joining what Emma Garnet sarcastically terms "the chivalric dead." To a newspaper's account of a soldier shot by sniper who "no doubt died in regard of his Cause," Emma Garnet responds, "No doubt he died wishing he was home, thinking Yankees and Negroes might not be worth the exquisite pain in his side . . ."The author of five novels including A Virtuous Woman and A Cure for Dreams, Kay Gibbons has considerable critical acclaim to live up to. In On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, she has exceeded it.
Reviewed by Rosalind S. Fournier.