Kaye Gibbons does a
superb job of rendering a 19th-century voice in On the Occasion of My Last
a first-person perspective on the Civil War by a Southern-bred woman
who marries into the famous Lowell family of Massachusetts.
Marrying Quincy Lowell at age 18 had rescued Emma Garnet from her abusive father, Samuel P. Tate, a self-made Virginia plantation owner. The Tate family's black servant Clarice escaped with Emma Garnet and Quincy to Raleigh, North Carolina. When the war breaks out, Emma Garnet and Quincy have three young daughters, a comfortable home, and an orderly life that is soon to be disrupted. Quincy, a surgeon, takes command of a military hospital for wounded soldiers. ("Everyone is my own kind," he answers when asked about reconciling his "leanings" with treating Southern boys.) There he labors nearly around the clock, seldom coming home even to sleep. As Emma Garnet learns by his side to be a nurse, she comes to view the war over slavery as a senseless conflict "perpetrated by rich men and fought by poor boys."
But Emma Garnet isn't a saint: She doesn't tell her black servants that they are in fact free. Like so many "benevolent" Southern slaveholders, she rationalizes that they are better off being cared for.
The novel's most interesting picture of race and race relations is provided by the invincible Clarice. She is the only person who can control domineering Samuel P. Tate, speaking to him as no one else dares. In Emma Garnet and Quincy's household, with Quincy away at the hospital, Emma Garnet assisting him and unschooled in domestic arts besides, Clarice is in charge. "She taught me, as she did everyone else, how to live," Emma Garnet says of "the strongest woman I have ever known." It's hard to judge how realistic is this portrayal of a mid-19th century black-white/servant-employer relationship, but nonetheless it's uplifting.
After the war, the exhausted Quincy wants to go home to Massachusetts to recuperate, a journey that will change Emma Garnet's life again. She relates the story in 1900, alone in the home in Raleigh that once abounded with the overflow of hospital patients, and looking forward to the death that will reunite her with her beloved Quincy.
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