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On the Occasion of my Last Afternoon [Paperback]

Kaye Gibbons
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1 1999
Sprawling in its scope but heartbreakingly exact in its depiction of a family torn apart, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon is a magnificent novel in the great Southern tradition. In the year 1900--on the afternoon she suspects might be the last of her long, eventful life--Emma Garnet Tate Lowell sets down on paper what came before, determined to make an honest account of it. Born to privilege on a James River plantation, she grew up determined to escape the domination of her bullying, self-made father, Samuel P. Tate, and ultimately seceded from his control to marry Quincy Lowell, a surgeon and member of the distinguished Boston family. But then came the Civil War. Working alongside Quincy, assisting him in the treatment of wounded soldiers, she witnessed scenes that would be engraved forever in her memory. And, before beginning the long journey of her own reconstruction, she must face the shame of her relationship to her "servants" and learn the terrible secret that shaped her father's life.

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Polly Holliday of TV's Home Improvement won a Tony nomination on Broadway playing Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and she makes Clarice, the matriarch of Kaye Gibbons' Civil War story On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, sound very big of voice indeed. Clarice is the slave who really runs things on Virginia's Seven Oaks plantation, no matter what her nasty, brutish owner, Samuel P. Tate, might think. Holliday has a good time voicing Tate's fulminations, too, neatly distinguishing them from the heroine-narrator Emma Tate's rather daintier dulcet tones. Not that Emma can't be wicked in her own way: she describes a snobbish socialite, "aggressively plain in the face ... who effused through the front door and into the arms of everyone simultaneously." Ms. Holliday puts as much sly violence into that "effused" as she does into Mr. Tate's rages.

Everyone who read Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain should consider reading On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, the poetically charged fictional reminiscences of Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, circa 1842-1900. For one thing, it was Frazier's already-published friend Gibbons who, with Frazier's wife's connivance, pried Cold Mountain from his grip and got it into publishers' hands.

But beyond their Civil War setting--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' fiction (Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman), and Walker Percy compared her to Faulkner. Oprah probably liked Gibbons's heroines for their plucky refusal to buckle under oppression--a trait shared by Gibbons herself, who triumphed over the manic-depressive illness that drove her mother to suicide.

Our heroine, Emma, shivers under the tyranny of her plantation daddy, Mr. 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 can fight Samuel Tate to a verbal draw and prevent slave uprisings on the eve of the war. Clarice helps save Emma, as does Emma's 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' Frazier-esque orgy of historical research for the book is an authentic feel for the grotesqueries of the period.

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 binary morality, is the grace and rumbling life of the narrator's language. The book, 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' John Brown novel Cloudsplitter. At points, it reads like a smarter, nonracist Gone with the Wind, only less windy.--Tim Appelo --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

A plea for racial tolerance is the subtext of Gibbons's estimable new novel, her first foray into historical fiction. Like her previous books (Ellen Foster, 1997, etc.), it is set in the South, but this one takes place during the Civil War era. Now 70 and near death, Emma Garnet Tate begins her account by recalling her youth as a bookish, observant 12-year-old in 1842, living on a Virginia plantation in a highly dysfunctional family dominated by her foulmouthed father, a veritable monster of parental tyranny and racial prejudice. Samuel Tate abuses his wife and six children but he also studies the classics and buys paintings by old masters. Emma's long-suffering mother, of genteel background and gentle ways, is angelic and forgiving; her five siblings' lives are ruined by her father's cruelty; and all are discreetly cared for by Clarice, the clever, formidable black woman who is the only person Samuel Tate respects. (Clarice knows Samuel's humble origins and the dark secret that haunts him, which readers learn only at the end of the book.) Gibbons authentically reproduces the vocabulary and customs of the time: Emma's father says "nigger" while more refined people say Negroes. "Nobody said the word slave. It was servant," Emma observes. At 17, Emma marries one of the Boston Lowells, a surgeon, and spends the war years laboring beside him in a Raleigh hospital. Through graphic scenes of the maimed and dying, Gibbons conveys the horror and futility of battle, expressing her heroine's abolitionist sympathies as Emma tends mangled bodies and damaged souls. By the middle of the book, however, Emma's narration and the portrayal of Clarice as a wise and forbearing earthmother lack emotional resonance. Emma, in fact, is far more interesting as a rebellious child than as a stoic grown woman. One finishes the novel admiring Emma and Clarice but missing the compelling narrative voice that might have made their story truly moving.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Very real March 4 2004
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
The writing was so excellent in this book, and the descriptions so real, that I felt as if I KNEW what it was like to have lived during the Civil War.
So many comparisons have been made between books. Some have compared McCrae's "Bark of the Dogwood" to "Confederacy of Dunces" and some have compared "Secret Life of Bees" to "To Kill a Mockingbird." Now people are comparing "On the Occasion" to "Gone With the Wind." I'm not sure about any of these comparisions, but I do know that "On the Occasion" can stand by itself and actually gives us a little MORE than GWTW, but without the length == Thank goodness.
The characters in Gibbon's book are so well-developed and they intertwine with each other in such a way as to make the read satisfying and easy.
Do yourself a favor and buy this book. Good writing by an intelligent author.
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1.0 out of 5 stars The most miserable afternoon. Jan. 12 2004
Format:Paperback
I read four chapters of this book. Then I threw it out the window. In all God-honesty, this book is now sitting in the weedy abandoned lot beside my house. I never ever want to see or hear from it again. It's a lot of politically-correct, sanctimonious moralizing only reinforcing what our equally-holier than thou culture teaches: that Southerners of the period the book focuses on (and before then and today, for that matter) are evil, bloodthirsty folk. Coming from a background similar to the one of the main character's, I am sick and tired of these stereotypes about as much as any black person would grow weary of the image of a shuffling, "yassah, massah"-mumbling Uncle Tom. Give me "Gone with the Wind," give me anything that does not shove a guilt trip and a lot of rewritten history down my throat.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A plea for racial tolerance Aug. 17 2003
Format:Paperback
On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon is Kaye Gibbon's first literary historical fiction entry. Set in the South, like all her books, this one takes place during the era of the Civil War. Near death, Emma Garnet Tate recounts her life, beginning with her childhood as a bright 12yo in 1842, on a Virginia plantation. Her foulmouthed and racially prejudiced father dominates his long-suffering wife and 6 children but has a literary and artistic side as well. This abusive and tyrannical man collects Old Masters' paintings. Clarise, the formidable black woman who truly runs the family (as the overseer of Samuel Tate's dark secret, she runs him, too), cares for everyone and leaves with Emma when she marries and moves away from 'home.' The graphic portrayal of Emma and her surgeon husband's duties tending for the maimed and dying soldiers during the war is a heart-rending expression of the futility of war.
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4.0 out of 5 stars a different Civil War Aug. 3 2003
Format:Paperback
This historical novel of the Civil War begins with the protagonist's father having murdered a slave for talking back. We meet Emma Garnet Tate and Clarice immediately following, the former being the aforementioned daughter of a plantation owner; the latter being the support of the book, a strong, wise black woman who is actually the one who holds the family and the plantation together.
Emma is narrating in flashback as she rests in bed, pushing off death until she can finish her story. She grew up a girl who identified more with her father's slaves than with her father; more with intellectuals than socialites. Her father's religious, racist rage is a terrifying force, and at times it seems no one around him is going to survive unscathed. But Emma does escape, thanks to Quincy Powell, a Boston doctor whose perfection would be irritating had Emma not needed him so badly (and deserved him so much). After they marry and honeymoon (in Paris, with Clarice along with them), the war begins and Quincy opens a hospital to take care of wounded Confederate soldiers. Emma has to become a caregiver, nurse, and finally an unofficial doctor when the wounded and dying start pouring in. Besides the gory and realistic descriptions of the horror of war, there are also detailed passages regarding the sick carnival of a public hanging and the misguided attempts to heal with leeches and blood-letting. These realistic and uncompromising details cause the book to be fascinating instead of merely a diversion.
Emma Garnet has survived much, but at times she seems wishy-washy and irritatingly upper-class. Gibbons might have intended this, because the character who shines through the most is Clarice. She had known Mr.
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4.0 out of 5 stars On the Occasion of my last afternoon Nov. 24 2002
By sam
Format:Paperback
Happiness can always be found eventually. Kaye Gibbons shows this from Emma
Garnet's point of view in her book, "On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon." Emma
Garnet's childhood, living on a plantation having many slaves, is very hard having to
always fear the temper of her father, Samuel L. Tate. Emma Garnet grows up feeling
sorry for her mother who isn't happy with her husband, to realize not all men are like
Mr. Tate. She meets a wonderful doctor, Quincy Lowell, and they become married having
3 children and living happily ever after. Although Emma Garnet finds extreme happiness, she
finds sorrow as well. "On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon" goes through a timeline of
Emma Garnet's life and with that it tells the many people that she loses along the way.
Kaye Gibbons does a wonderful job at telling the story with going back in time so that it
doesn't come across as confusing. Overall I thought that this book was great to read and
very interesting the whole way through.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written page turner
I recommend this book without hesitation. It was an absolute treat. The characters are rich and full of life and the dialogue is remarkable. Read more
Published on Sept. 23 2002 by Tasha Blakney
2.0 out of 5 stars On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon
This book was highly recommended to me and it was a big disappointment. I found it difficult to follow the timeline. Read more
Published on Sept. 10 2002 by M. ONeil
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is great on tape.
I read this book on tape and it is one of the only readings I've ever heard that I felt really brought the book to life. Read more
Published on April 9 2002 by K. Champagne
3.0 out of 5 stars Dark Story but a Good Message
On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon is a novel that explores the deep roots of our country and our families. Read more
Published on Nov. 28 2001 by Sandra Mitchell
4.0 out of 5 stars audio book
I strongly suggest getting the audio version of this book, if traveling is in your future. It is wonderfully narrated by Polly Holliday (Flo on the TV sitcom Alice). Read more
Published on Aug. 28 2001
2.0 out of 5 stars Papa bad, Mama good....
Saints Emma Garnet and her husband Quincy grated my nerves so much I wished the South would have won! The characters were completely flatline. Read more
Published on July 28 2001 by annie
4.0 out of 5 stars One to Read
Other reviewers will summarize the plot for you -- let me just say that this is an extremely well-written book, with beautiful and haunting imagery, realistic dialogue and... Read more
Published on April 27 2001 by Michele T. Woodward
4.0 out of 5 stars Touching
Lyrically written, this is a novel of exquisite prose and razor sharp insight. ON THE OCCASION... achieves a better job of describing the Civil War than dozens of other books have... Read more
Published on April 8 2001 by HeyJudy
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