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A Letter from Kaye Gibbons
After experiences that were uniquely necessary to us, that mattered, spiritually and intellectually, down to the ground, a certain grace lingers. We carry it the way Starletta carried the odor of smoke and supper in her hair, broadening and deepening our customary means of identifying ourselves. My mother's death and my daughter's births were momentous, and it seemed fair and natural when grace lingered by the cradle and the grave, but I was startled, twenty years ago this December, when I realized how profound an impress a fictional girl was making on my life. Honored by her sudden company, I let walls come down as my heart prepared the larger, sturdier place her outstanding self deserved. Little wonder that I'd want to write about her again—as necessary to me as my own children, she mattered.
Since Ellen Foster is autobiographical, it shouldn't come as a shock that when I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. My mother, as Ellen suffers to express as she introduces herself to a potential benefactor in The Life All Around Me, became too sad and died when I was almost ten, and throughout a series of disappointments that were so acute as to almost vibrate in a heightened state of surrealism. Literature, learning, geometry, biology, words formed a substantial enough counterweight to ground me. Now, through Ellen and principally with the second portion of her journey, I'm able to look back and behave like a grown woman, with the objectivity of this distance that was achieved through work and miracles. Although I intend to revisit her every few years and write about the transformations in her life, I don't know about her future in any ultimate kind of way, but I'll hide and watch, as her mama's mama says, and I'll only need to look as far as my heart, where she swooped in again and set up housekeeping with a contented familiarity and a fierce understanding of what to do and how to do it.
Writers and readers agree to meet in a novel, an appropriate place for a proper summit during a finite and particular interlude in your life and mine. I'm always ready to leave when the time comes, when all the words I meant to say are said, but a clean and thorough getaway is impossible because readers are generally an optimistic lot, except for students who sometimes feel roped and dragged to the affair and require a kind of tender convincing to remain. They have the best we can do coming to them—urgent and rigorously beautiful language—particularly because the incessant narration of popular culture is excellent only at repeating itself. Getting the language right was the first effort in both books, and although I wrote the second because of an accumulation of curiosities about exactly who would open the door when I rang the bell this time, I was most interested in her voice.
When she was little, Ellen's simple declarations were capable of carrying the heavy burden of human emotion, love, fear, grief, need, hope. I contemplated the new story, I became concerned that her language would be homogenized and her voice weakened from not having spoken for so long. I should've known better—when I let myself into the house, I knew the way to her room, and there she was, her long legs up on her nice twin bed, looking down and smiling, thinking about how to begin this long letter she'd like to write to explain who she is to people who don't know her and to say hello to some people she had for company a long time ago, and in her own time and in her own way, when she's ready, she says, My name is Ellen Foster. I hope this finds you happy, in good health, and thriving….
Book and essay texts copyright © 2005 by Kaye Gibbons. Photo credits: (sky and fields) © Thomas Wiewandt; Visions of America/Corbis,(house and trees) © Paul A. Souders/Corbis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.