The Effects of Kate's Birthmark in Jill McCorkle's Ferris Beach:: 1 Works Cited
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"'It's a birthmark', my mother said over and over. 'Lots of people have birthmarks'"(p.44). In Jill McCorkle's Ferris Beach, Kate Burns has a birthmark. The presence of her birthmark causes Kate to be shy and self-conscious. It is her weak spot, affecting how she perceives both herself and others. Because of the focus Kate's birthmark draws to her face, she places great importance on appearance. Kate's stress on the way things look affects her relationships with everyone around her and especially the women in her life. Through most of the novel, Kate's relationship with her mother is clouded by her relationships with Mo Rhodes and Angela. It is not until Kate is able to look past mere appearances and see these women clearly for what they are, that her relationship with her own mother can begin to grow and develop.
Kate hates her birthmark. Even more, she hates her mother's attitude about her birthmark. Kate desperately wants someone to blame for her birthmark and someone to have pity for her. She "always wanted to say that if it was a birthmark it must be her [Cleva's] fault"(p.44). Her mother, however, is unsympathetic and explains, "I just want her to see that she can't let this ruin her life; there are things we just have to accept"(p.48). Kate's mother tries to constantly remind her that things could be worse and she shouldn't whine. But during her early childhood years, Kate's birthmark does affect her and it is hard for her to accept. Kate feels that her birthmark is an open invitation for others to hurt her. She becomes extremely self-conscious as she puts up with teasing by Merle Hucks and R.W. Quincy. Covering her face with her hand becomes an automatic reaction. Kate's attitude about her birthmark and her attitude towards her mother become a source of tension in their relationship. She hates that her mom simply will not apologize for the birthmark.. Kate begins to hate her mother for her lack of compassion and so she seeks other women with which to form bonds. Mo Rhodes and Angela become substitutes to compensate for the close relationship that Kate lacks with her own mother.
Mo Rhodes is the epitome of a "cool" mom. When the Rhodes' move in across the street, Kate is intrigued by Mo and overwhelmed by the chance to get to know Misty, a friend her own age.
Misty and Kate soon become best friends, and much of Kate's time is spent over at the Rhodes' in the company of Mo. Mo is everything that Cleva is not. Whereas Kate considers Cleva to be dull and boring, Mo is striking and different with "her thick dark hair...her toenails painted pale pink...[and] her eyes that were peacock blue"(p.8). Cleva is demanding and makes Kate work and do chores. Mo, on the other hand, lets Misty and Kate eat s'mores and drink Coca-Cola. Mo is fun, exciting, and outrageous. With Mo and Misty, Kate doesn't feel shy or self-conscious. Judging from appearances, Mo is the "perfect" mom and Misty has the "perfect" family.
Angela, as well, represents everything Cleva does not. Angela is beautiful and mysterious, dropping in and out of Kate's life. The first time Kate sees Angela it "was almost like seeing a movie in slow-motion, seeing every step of her long bare legs, her feet sinking into the hot loose sand"(p.16). Angela is young and glamorous. She makes Kate feel special from the first moment she meets her when she protests "Oh, don't hide your pretty little face"(p.16). When Angela comes to visit in the summer, Kate spends all her time with her. Angela gives Kate confidence. "With Angela I felt brave"(p.142) Kate explains. Unlike Cleva, who is unsympathetic to Kate's appearance, Angela places an importance on appearance. She tries to hide Kate's problem, her birthmark, by covering it up with make-up. When Angela is done and asks for Kate's opinion, Kate responds that she likes it -- "I still couldn't believe what a difference a little bit of make-up could make"(p.153). By altering Kate's appearance, Angela changes Kate's perception of herself. As she grows older, Kate begins to show more self-esteem and the importance of her birthmark diminishes.
What Kate does not realize, though, is that appearances can be deceiving. Problems can be covered up, but they can't always be ignored. Everyone has birthmarks. Mo and Angela have birthmarks, but their marks are not seen. Instead, they are kept very hidden. Kate sees outer appearances only. She perceives Mo and Angela to be how their personalities and looks reflect them to be, but she doesn't see their true "marks." When the inner marks of Mo and Angela are revealed, it changes how Kate perceives the women that she looked up to as role models.
Just as Kate's birthmark affects her personality and her relationships with others, Mo and Angela have traits of character that are essential in determining the way they act. After Mo's death, Kate gets a look at who Mo really was, which was contrary to what appearances revealed. She learns, from Angela, the "mark" that Mo had been hiding inside. When Kate discovers that Mo "and Gene Files had been screwing around for years"(p.155), her perception of Mo as the "perfect" mom is shattered. Kate is brought to tears by the idea that Mo could have been anyone but the "cool" mom she knew her as. Who was Mo? Did Kate ever really know her? Kate is upset and doesn't want to think that the "perfect" family was just an act to overcompensate for the terrible secret Mo held inside.
Angela tries to blame her flaw on her own mother, like Kate. Never knowing who her father is, Angela is constantly fighting against the feeling that she's been abandoned all her life. Angela explains to Kate, "I wanted a mother. I wanted a mother who loved me, okay"(p.270). Angela is so scared of not having someone there that she can't be by herself. She needs to be with a man, or, at least, say she is with one. Kate hears about and witnesses Angela's failed marriages and relationships throughout the novel and knows that Angela has never found "true" love. As happy as Angela gives the impression of being, Kate soon discovers that Angela cannot truly be content.
Kate realizes that Angela is not as glamorous as she was the day she first met her, so "young-looking and glamorous in her two-piece sparkly gold suit"(p.16), standing on top a dune at Ferris Beach. Now, as Kate sits in Angela's apartment, watching her eat eggs and smoke, all the mystery and secrecy Angela once held is gone. Just like the broken TV on the counter, Kate and Angela will never have the functioning, nurturing relationship that Kate had hoped for. Kate wishes she could go back in time -- "I wished I could stop all that was happening, had happened, and play through it all before I continued "(p.269). Angela destroys whatever reverence Kate once felt for her when she takes her home. Kate, suddenly, wants to turn back everything Angela is saying and doing. Kate wants to take back the moments in the car, when Angela makes her feel like her relationship with Merle didn't mean anything, and she wants "to make her take back everything she'd said about Mo"(p.269). As Kate spends more time with Angela, she slowly loses respect for her. When Kate discovers what Angela and her life are really like, she wonders how she could have ever wished that Angela was her real mom.
After revealing the inner marks of Angela and Mo Rhodes, the initial views she has of these women, based on their appearances, are destroyed. She still loves Mo and Angela, but she realizes they are not everything she thought they were. Kate's own birthmark seems to become less important. She wonders if maybe she isn't lucky that her birthmark is seen. That way, there is not the secrecy held by Mo and Angela and she isn't tricking anyone with phony appearances. Kate finally understands what her mother meant with her endless nagging that "things could be worse." Angela explains to Kate in regards to her birthmark that she can "Use some make-up, cover it up. It's not so easy to just walk in a door and say Love me. Somebody please love me"(p.270). Kate realizes that Angela's and Mo's marks probably run much deeper than her own. Even though Kate never saw their marks, they still were sources of pain and unhappiness for Angela and Mo.
Cleva is already aware of the marks that Kate comes to realize slowly. Somehow, Cleva blames herself for the mark Angela bares and the lifestyle into which she grows. Cleva feels as though she failed Angela in her role of a mother, forcing her to seek love and compassion through sexual relationships, knowing that Angela's sexual relationships could never replace the loss of her parents. Forever frustrated by Angela's actions, Cleva reacts very strongly when she finds Kate in bed with Merle. She doesn't want to fail Kate like she failed Angela. The discovery of Merle and Kate terrifies Cleva because she sees Kate heading down the same, misguided path that Angela took.
When Cleva catches Merle and Kate in bed, she pulls Kate in front of a mirror and says, "Look at you"(p.258). What she actually wants Kate to look at is not her "lean and white...body, [her] hair loose from the barrettes, and [her] neck splotched red like neon"(p.259). What Cleva wants Kate to examine closely is what's inside. Cleva is afraid that the mark Kate is forming inside could be uglier than the birthmark on her face. What Cleva wants to say, but is too shocked and stunned to, is "Look at what you're doing...look at what you're becoming...you don't want to be like Angela, do you?" Kate, as usual, though, just sees outer appearances, and she hates her mother at that moment for making her feel so ugly. Kate feels as though her mother could never understand her and so she turns to Angela.
When Kate rides home with Angela, she realizes that they are very different people. She is not Angela, and she doesn't want to live the life that Angela does. Unlike Mo and Angela, Kate knows that she can change herself and transform her "inner mark" so she doesn't end up like them. Kate wishes she could travel back to a time when life was easier. She wishes she could be back home "stretched out on [Misty's] bed...[and] have Mo come in and stretch out at our feet...and hear my father's music...and find him in his study"(p.271). Most of all, Kate "wished that I could make my mother understand how she had misjudged me"(p.271). Knowing that she can never go back in time to re-live her life, she learns that she is able, and has the will, to change the way she perceives herself and the way others perceive her. Kate calls her mother to rescue her from Angela's apartment and Angela's life. When Kate asks Cleva, "Please come get me"(p.271), she is not hoping to go back and change what has happened, but is looking ahead to correcting her future with her mother. Responding quickly, Cleva picks Kate up, and a step towards a relationship free from Angela and Mo begins.
Kate is finally able to look beyond appearances and to really understand people. Kate feels like her mother and her are being given a second chance. She begins to place all the times her mother and her have misjudged each other in the past. Kate's relationship with her mother is no longer clouded by the appearances of Mo and Angela. She is proud to say "That I was my mother's daughter"(p.276). As Kate and her mother watch Misty spinning her baton, Kate realizes that with her renewed relationship with her mother and her new outlook on life, she, too, has "a whole world of possibilities spinning around her"(278).
McCorkle, Jill. Ferris Beach. New York: Fawcett Books, 1990.