Everyone who read Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain should consider reading Kaye Gibbons's On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, the poetically charged fictional reminiscences of Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, child of Virginia's Seven Oaks plantation, from 1842-1900. For one thing, it was Frazier's already-published friend Gibbons who, with his wife's connivance, pried Cold Mountain from his grip and got it into publishers' hands.
But beyond their Civil War settings--a first for Gibbons, who's noted for 20th-century tales--the two books share resonant Southern literary accents, characters with similarly obstinate responses to enormous grief, and a shivery sense of history's stark shadow falling across everyday events. Oprah Winfrey twice recommended Gibbons's fiction (Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman), and Walker Percy compared her to Faulkner. Probably Oprah liked Gibbons's heroines for their plucky refusal to buckle under oppression--a trait shared by Gibbons herself, who triumphed over the manic-depression that drove her mother to suicide.
Our heroine, Emma, quakes under the tyranny of her plantation daddy, Samuel P. Tate, who slits the throat of a slave who talks back to him and just might do the same to his half-dozen children. There is no enormity of which he is incapable, this bellowing Simon Legree with an autodidact's education and a self-made man's bottomless urge to rise above his raising. He is, as he might have thunderingly put it, "a pluperfect son of Satan." Only Clarice, the matriarchal slave and true ruler of the household, can fight Samuel Tate to a verbal draw and prevent slave uprisings on the eve of war. Clarice helps save Emma, as does her impeccable swain Dr. Quincy Lowell, who sweeps in like a cool Boston breeze to dispel the dismal tidewater miasma.
The war, alas, brings a tsunami of blood, forcing Dr. Lowell to make Emma a de facto battlefield surgeon--an occasion he recognizes by fashioning a bit of commemorative jewelry for her from a dead man's silver filling and inscribing the date with a finger-amputation tool. One aspect of Gibbons's Frazieresque orgy of historical research is an authentic feel for the grotesqueries of the period. She can be amusing, too: the "aggressively plain in the face" Miss McKimmon--a fanged Raleigh socialite who's mean to Emma--is said to have arrived at a party and "effused through the front door and into the arms of everyone simultaneously." On the audiocassette version of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, you can hear the proper way to pronounce "effused" for maximum satirical violence.
One craves for Emma's hubby and daddy to swap five percent of each others' respectively perfect and perfectly awful souls--the book is not big on startling character revelations. What makes it work, despite its lack of moral shading and narrative guile, is the grace and rumbling life of the narrator's language. On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, which has its sometimes anachronistically enlightened head in the New South and its feet firmly planted in the past, deserves a place next to Russell Banks's John Brown novel Cloudsplitter. At points, it reads like a smarter, nonracist Gone with the Wind, only less windy. --Tim Appelo