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On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon Audio, Cassette – Audiobook, June 1, 1998

3.9 out of 5 stars 67 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

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.

Product Details

  • Audio Cassette
  • Publisher: Audioworks; Abridged edition (June 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671573012
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671573010
  • Product Dimensions: 7.1 x 4.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,916,564 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This, Gibbon's latest work, is not her best, or perhaps a better way of saying it would be, her most literary, but it shows a side of this Southern author that was hiding in most of her earlier works. I've read the book several times, and though I am a male, I am a Southerner, and the book gives my shivers every time. It is the most beautifully tragic book I have ever read. (Shakespeare wrote plays, not books.) Emma Garnet Tate Lowell is, like most of Gibbons' main characters, strong, insightful, but none of the others have endured as much hardship as she has. The prose is, as usual, pitch-perfect, and though the characters are not greatly subtle in a post-modern way (to which we have perhaps become *too* accustomed), they are classic morality studies in themselves. This one blows GONE WITH THE WIND out of the water for Southern Romances. Kaye Gibbons is a consumate storyteller, and ON THE OCCASION OF MY LAST AFTERNOON is a stunning book.
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Format: Paperback
Kaye Gibbons has a very breezy, readable style, and she has managed to capture very well the phrasing used in writings of the ante- and post-bellum period. I only wish her research had been done more carefully. As a long-time Virginia resident, I can safely say that her sense of the geography of this state is confused at best and downright wrong at its worst. She is also incorrect when she tells of wounded soldiers being transported from Gettysburg and Antietam all the way to Raleigh so that they can undergo surgery at the hands of the main character's husband. No soldier needing surgery would ever have made it such a great distance, and the railroads were in such a dismal state that the Confederacy could not have transported desperately wounded men that far, even if it had had a mind to. Wounded men were generally treated in farmhouses and churches and barns nearest the battlefield. However, her portrayal of hospital conditions is accurate, and her knowledge of medicine is impressive. Her characters, although interesting, are a little two-dimensional -- either tolerant and good and wise, or abusive and narrow-minded. No one is depicted with the usual beauties and warts we generally find in humans. It is a testament to the strength of Gibbons' style that I enjoyed reading the book despite these glaring problems.
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By A Customer on October 6, 1999
Format: Paperback
If you thought Cold Mountain was a good story, you'll like On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon for different reasons. Whereas Mountain was a love story, Occasion is one woman's story. Easy read, believable, entertaining. A good choice for a book group--mine gave it a thumb's up.
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Format: Paperback
Emma Garnet's wealthy, sheltered childhood with an abusive, domineering father and a loving and refined mother was top notch -- insightful and at times heartbreaking. Gibbons was writing what she knew about and it felt like she lived some of those scenes

But after Emma's marriage, it was a different book. To quote Mr. Tate, everything was "pluperfect". Perfect husband, perfect children, perfect family life -- except for one unlikely incident at a dinner party when Emma is asked about her unfortunate brother and which felt manufactured to put some distress in Emma's perfect life.

I believed in Emma the child but Emma as an adult lost me and lost my sympathy. The child's sensibilities -- treating slaves like people, and not calling them "slaves" but "servants" -- this didn't transfer to adulthood. Why else would Emma not tell her servants that they were free? Emma should have realized how patronizing that was, not to mention simply cruel.

Much is made (by Emma) of her love for her beleaguered mother, yet she kept Clarice with her -- her mother's only bulwark against the father. Emma had wealth and status and protection and she didn't fear her father, yet in twelve years she couldn't visit her mother? The child Emma would have brought mom home for a visit and kept her.

After her mother dies, she worries for her sister Maureen and writes to her father, "You monster, send Maureen to me now." Then nothing. She could have rescued her sister, but she did nothing.

What happened to the strong, resourceful, fearless child we met in the first part of the book? Someone swapped her for Melanie Wilkes.

The only scenes that felt real in the second half of the book were Emma and her doctor husband caring for wounded soldiers, and the privation they suffered. Everything else felt like a fairy tale, with a bit of an apologist slant.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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 intriguing situations. I think the device of a woman looking back on her life on the occasion of her last afternoon on earth is quite brilliant. I read that Kaye Gibbons mentored Charles Frazier through his writing of Cold Mountain. This book is like Cold Mountain in that it shows war in all its grimy squalor and blows the myth that war is noble and pure. I enjoyed it very much, as I do most of Kaye Gibbons work.
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By A Customer on March 24, 1999
Format: Hardcover
i fell in love with kaye gibbons writing when i read ellen foster -- her writing encapsulated everything i love about southern literature. easy prose -- but not simplistic, a great story, and memorable, wonderful characters. emma garnet and all the characters in "my last afternon" read like caricatures. the whole story has a shallowness that i wasn't expecting. it's like kaye gibbons had this wonderful idea, but just coudn't quite realize it in writing. none of the characters were particularly believable. her father was too horrible -- with no redeeming features, and her husband was too annoyingly perfect -- as were her chidren and her idyllic life as a married woman. the fact that she did not tell her servants that they were free did not, in fact, make me like her less, but was an indication that the author was trying to create a believable narrator that was a product of her time, rather than the creation of a 20th century mind. but that only exists as a hint.
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