Ferris Beach: Automobiles and Motorcycles as Symbols

Ferris Beach: Automobiles and Motorcycles as Symbols

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Ferris Beach:   Automobiles and Motorcycles as Symbols       

  During adolescence, one makes a transition from a child to a young adult. It is common for an adolescent to be confused and frustrated with new ideas regarding morals and beliefs. People, places, and experiences teach adolescents about life and how to handle different situations., and the environments of the individuals become instrumental for their development. In the novel Ferris Beach, Jill McCorkle provides an example of the learning process of an adolescent girl in the 1970's. Kate Burns accepts the changes of a shifting South and eventually embraces a change within herself. In McCorkle's novel, cars and highways provide an index for understanding the new changes in the South. At this time, cars became possessions of most families and the automobile's prevalence sparked many changes for adolescents in America. McCorkle uses the car in her novel as a "vehicle" for Kate Burns to learn about life and growing up.

The car was first considered a common household item in the 1970's, which signified a sizable change in American life and increased opportunity for all people. One major change made with the increase in cars was the building of roads which McCorkle notes, "...Mrs. Poole rented out Brown's Econo Lodge on Old 301, which had gone bust with the building of I-95" (McCorkle 35). The process of the old Econo Lodge being torn down and replaced by the new road calls for a lot of physical changes. The destruction of the Econo Lodge is comparable to Kate losing her girlish attributes. As the new road is being paved, Kate's figure is maturing and taking on a more womanly shape. Most people enjoy knowing they have security in a situation and dislike periods of transition. Therefore, when towns across America experienced the construction of roads, citizens were anticipating and impatiently waiting its completion. Kate possess a similar attitude regarding the culmination of her adolescence. She longs for this growth to reach finality and hopes that she will someday appear as womanly as Angela, "...so young-looking and glamorous in her two-piece sparkly gold suit right below her navel (16).


The building of I-95 increased opportunities for those with cars. Distances between cities seemed shorter and many consumer goods became widely accessible. The ability to travel on modern roads allows Kate and her dad to make the trip to Ferris Beach.

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The journey opens Kate's mind up to new ideas and places. She had never experienced a place like Ferris Beach before this visit. Kate is first exposed to Angela at the beach, who teaches Kate about one manner in which girls mature. Kate's attitude about life in general is permanently altered by a car's ability to make things available:

His car was in the driveway, window rolled down from morning, when he had gone to buy The New York Times, he was so excited that he was finally able to buy the paper in Fulton, instead of having to wait for the Sunday edition that arrived a week later in the mail (231).

Simple actions like that of her father will form Kate into an individual that will not have to rely on others to get results. Her father can go and buy the paper that he wants instead of having to wait for it to be delivered by mail, thus teaching Kate that she has control over what she wants in life. Cars have erased many obstacles that generations before her have had in the past; now Kate knows that nothing can stop her from getting what she wants out of life and no distance is too great.


Automobiles continued to represent change by aiding in the expansion of new stereotypes and status symbols. The production of cars from different regions of the world began a competition between countries:

'I am tired', Mrs. Poole said fiercely. 'Of people talking about Toyotas! They are of the Japanese and by the Japanese, and is this why Robert Manchester Poole risked his life in the Pacific? for better gas mileage?' (252)

In the 1970's, Toyotas became popular due to their price and reliability. Kate learns about society and how some people are leaders and others followers. She wishes to have a Toyota so that she can be less obtrusive and "blend in" to the crowd, "I wanted to . . . drive an inconspicuous Toyota like everyone else who had a car. Or better, I wanted the self-confidence to be able to drive the Checker with out feeling like a large green monster" (250). Kate understands that to be a leader and feel comfortable driving her bulky green car, she must first gain self esteem. In many ways her green Checker resembles the "obvious" birthmark on her cheek as just one more thing to make her stand out. Conversely, Kate learns that some people want to be seen and they use cars as a method of representing their personality and ranking themselves socially. Motorcycles, particularly Harley Davidsons, represent the quintessential "bad boy" in Ferris Beach. Kate recognizes this association after witnessing the rape of Perry Loomis:


Out of nowhere, the engines revved and three bikes came around the corner of the house, the bright white headlights scanning the yard like beacons. They cut the engines, leaving one headlight glaring. Perry sat up, her hand shielding the bright light, and then within seconds, R.W. Quincy was there, his large hands catching her ankles and pinning them down as if she were a trapped animal held for observation (173).

Kate continually associates objects with personalities. She longs to be a "glamorous" girl like Perry Loomis. She learns that fast cars often contain "fast" and aggressive boys: "I had imagined I was there in the red GTO as that high school senior inched his hand over to the majorette's thigh; imagined that I looked just like Perry, that I was Perry Loomis" (115). Kate distinctly separates personalities of individuals by the cars that they drive. Merle does the same after his brother raped Perry and then road off on a Harley. Kate recognizes Merle's opinion: "Merle wanted a car, period, no motorcycles ever, just the mention of which led us all the way back around to our beginning" (251). Kate associates motorcycles with one of the worst moments in her life, the rape of Perry Loomis. She, therefore, learns to associate wrong doing and risky behavior with a risky vehicle, the motorcycle.


The increased production of cars augmented the chance of a disaster occurring. Kate faces many emotional thresholds that relate to cars. Dean tests her vulnerability to the opposite sex in the Rhodes' carport:

...I tiptoed past and out the side door into the carport, here Dean was throwing a rubber ball up against the brick wall. He held his throw while I started to walk past and then right when I got in front of him, he threw it hard into my side . . . 'Why don't you get the hell out of here?' he said . . . But when I took a step forward, he threw his arm out and caught me under the neck . . .He pressed in closer, his soured mouth open on my neck . . . as I pushed against him, surprised by his strength in that thin chest and wiry arms (87).

Kate feels as if she has no control when faced with Dean's forceful behavior, thus, she begins to question her security and strength within her surroundings. Other disasters related to cars have similar affects on Kate. When Mo Rhodes dies in a car accident, Kate forces herself to examine her life as Misty reflects on the event: "'Why did it happen? Of all the people in all the cars on all the roads, why did it have to be my [Misty] mother'" (133)? Mo Rhodes became a mother figure for Kate. MO's death causes Kate to question her security in a different way. Kate reflects upon the permanency of her family and loved ones. She questions the existence of God, therefore, developing some of her own views of religion. Kate's questioning of the importance of God leads to her decision to sleep with Merle. Her views on how to regard the opposite sex are continually distorted with stereotypes created by cars. For example, the "fast" boy in the GTO shows Kate that relationships based on sex and appearance are often accepted by society. Angela reaffirms Kate's attitude on sex which provides Kate with a distorted view of love:


I knew that somewhere in the darkness of the trees and shrubs was her boyfriend, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth as he looked forward to when all this ended and he had her in that red GTO, parked on the other side of Whispering Pines. It's amazing what being sixteen and in the back seat of a car can do to your head (157).

Angela presents the idea that all teenagers get wild in the back seat of a car and that this a trivial and common part of growing up. Her attitude makes Kate feel as though she is not normal or acting the way she should, and causes her to envy those in the GTO hindering the development of her own personality, "I imagined I was there in the red GTO" (115). Angela fails, however, to show Kate the repercussions of such intimacy, thus, shielding Kate from an accurate picture of the truth. Kate does not realize that Angela herself has yet to escape her problems that stemmed from her own wild behavior; her several marriages and temporary relationships with men.


The speed and efficiency of the automobile caused it to become a tool for escape. Often times, people use cars to transport themselves in and out of difficult situations. When Mo Rhodes left her family to live with Gene Files, she make a hasty decision. Literally in a matter of minutes, she abandoned her family. Mo does, however, attempt to return to Misty, Dean, and Mr. Rhodes with the same amount of alacrity: "And then, forty-eight hours later it was as if nothing had happened: Mo Rhodes had made a mistake and was on her way home" (93). Cars enable situations to be more temporary than they have in the past. Kate understands this temporarily and although Mo uses it to protect herself from the emotional problems of her family, Kate feels confused and insecure in her environment. Angela also uses a car to escape from her problems: "Angela hugged my father and then my mother, kissed both of my cheeks, and once again was gone with a promise of letters and phone calls and a couple of revs form the car's engine" (199). When Angela is in trouble or having difficulties in her relationships, she turns to an automobile to transport herself to the Burns' for comfort. Angela's actions reinforce the transient qualities of certain situations to Kate and teach her that running away from problems is an effective way to deal with them. Kate later puts what she's learned into action when she "escapes" to Mr. Poole's room to have sex with Merle.

The 1970's make the automobile a tool for middle-class America to use as a mod of transportation, change, opportunity, and most importantly, teaching. Ferris Beach traces Kate Burns' development into a young woman by illustrating the increased production of the car and its impact on society. Kate accepts the changes brought on by he car and eventually embraces a change within herself. Although Kate lacks complete self-confidence at the closing of the novel she arrives home in the green Checker. Her journey which has been told in and around cars arrives at an end. Looking out from the car, she sees Misty and " a whole world of possibilities spinning around her" (278).


Works Cited

McCorkle, Jill. Ferris Beach. New York: Fawcett Books, 1990.


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