A Summons to Memphis
Kate Vaiden is Reynolds Price’s sixth novel, and it has already renewed interest in a writer whose career had a strong beginning (A Long and Happy Life, A Generous Man) but then seemed to sag under the weight of several honorable, talkative, but less than gripping novels. As Price informs us in a prepublication note from his publisher, he has identified two sources from which his new work arose. One was the need to write a story that would have a direct relationship—“at whatever imaginative distance”—to his own curiosities about the past of his dead mother, who had been orphaned at an early age. The other was a wish to confront the tyrannical dictum of feminists “that members of a gender may not function with any security outside that gender’s narrow mental and physical confines—a man cannot ‘understand’ a woman and vice versa.”
The impact of early orphanage is indeed central to Kate Vaiden’s story, which otherwise, Price informs us, bears slight resemblance to the events of his mother’s life. Moreover, the telling of it in the first person involves for Price (who has always been a special pleader, so to speak, for the women in his fiction) a sustained feat of female impersonation that goes beyond mimicry to a sympathetic identification with every inflection of his heroine’s highly distinctive voice and every twist and turn of her erratic course. The effect of this impersonation is engaging in the liveliness of the narration and incident.
The time of the novel is from the late 1920s to the present, when Kate, “a real middle-sized white woman that has kept on going with strong eyes and teeth for fifty-seven years,” sets out to write her improbable history; the setting is north-central North Carolina—both town and country—with an extended interlude in Norfolk, Virginia, during the Second World War. After a childhood described as “normal as tapwater, up to a point,” Kate, at age eleven, is abruptly and violently orphaned when her volatile young father, Dan, murders her mother, Frances, and then kills himself in the graveyard where a cousin of Frances’s has just been buried. The circumstances are mysterious; we learn only that another cousin, Swift, is somehow involved. Kate, who is bright, a hearty reader, and a great talker, is taken in by her mother’s much older sister, Caroline, a stoical and kindhearted woman who had herself raised Frances when their parents prematurely died. Caroline gives Kate a good home in the little rural village of Macon; besides the aunt, the household consists of Caroline’s husband Holt and a young black cook, Noony, who soon becomes Kate’s confidante and adviser.
The child’s mourning for her much-loved parents seems brief, almost perfunctory, and she soon adjusts to her new life. Observant and quick-tongued, Kate gives us an arresting child’s-eye view of what it was like to live in that time and place:
First, it was tiny—not two hundred people, more than half of them black. No entertainment but summer revivals at…
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