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Throughout the journey of life, each person experiences events, emotions, and consequences that cannot be explained. Situations do not always turn out for the best, and it is human nature to attempt to come to some type of understanding or answer as to why things are the way they are. In Ferris Beach, a bildingsroman, or the story of a girl's coming of age, Kate Burns grapples with questions of life and death as she seeks some sort of explanation for her problems. Her fight to comprehend the events in her life are shown in her exploration of mortality, sexuality, and humanity.
Death is always a hard concept with which one must deal at some point in life. Kate wonders what is loose in the world and why people close to her are taken away forever in the deaths of Mo Rhodes and her father Fred. On Independence Day, the fateful beginning of the catastrophe unfolding, Kate experiences her first adult troubles. Similar to Jem and Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, Kate moves through her innocence into experience with some obvious and some inconspicuous brushes with the adult world. As she sits with Misty observing the fireworks, she senses the troubles in her best friend.
I turned to Misty, ready to ask her why her parents had
left, but she was sitting there hugging her knees with her
head dropped back as she stared up at the sky...there
was something in her silence that made me hold my
question, and instead I inched over closer to her, hugged
my knees, and stared up just as she was doing (McCorkle 81-82).
Kate is aware that something has gone awry but she does not accurately know what the situation is. Despite the distractions of the fireworks, her father's comments, the boys fighting on the beach, and Mrs. Poole's endless chatter, Kate focuses on the most important (though silent) thing going on with Misty. The faint hint of disarray in Misty precedes Kate's reaction to Mo's death. Kate, throughout the novel, "watches" different people and, from her house, she can see into the Rhodes's and Hucks's houses. She "watches" Misty's house after Mo's car accident and comments that Misty "...looked so pale" and that the whole family "...froze like the end of a play"(McCorkle 91).
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For a young girl around the age of puberty, the question of sexuality arises, whether it be of herself or of others. In this case, Kate secretly and frequently questions situations she observes and ultimately ponders her own sexuality. Kate encounters her first observation of physical contact between Angela and her father at Ferris Beach. Her father "...reached out to touch the strand of hair which fell near [Angela's] eye"(McCorkle 16). Kate analytically describes Angela's long legs, feet, hair, makeup, hands, and bathing suit in sexually descriptive words. She also notices the details of the embrace between Angela and a strange man as they leave the beach. Throughout Kate's life and through her eyes, the reader sees the lack of Angela's type of embraces in the Burns' marriage. Kate often sees Cleva resisting Fred's pecking at her cheek and his playful embraces. Kate goes on to count condoms with Misty to occupy her time but, always perceptive, she continues her pursuit of explanations when she ponders Mo's relationship with Gene Files. Unlike her view of Angela as aesthetic and beautiful, she "...didn't want to think of Mo Rhodes kissing that man, with all that hardware hanging from his belt"(McCorkle 90). She experiences yet another bad sexual experience after Mo's death when Dean presses his sticky mouth on her neck. The image and fear involved in Dean pinning her against the side of the house stays in her mind and she is constantly reminded of it. Thus far, Kate notices any physical feature or physical contact in others but, in the tree overlooking Dexter and Perry, she learns the dangers of sexuality. As she views the rape scene, Kate sees and almost feels the horrible reality of what she has been wanting all along. The rape is the extreme of the mere arm squeezing she encounters from Dean in the Rhodes's car and of her wishes for a boyfriend. After the graphic crime, when she is alone, Kate finds the event unnecessary and haunting when she describes Perry's "...breasts that were the subject of all adolescent boys' dreams of womanhood and sexiness, just those of a young girl, pale blue veins underlining pale white skin,"(McCorkle 177). She comprehends that the peril exists even with girls who are not fully developed into womanhood and she is shaken. The rape stays in her mind throughout the novel and she cannot seem to find an answer or justification as to why the crime took place. Along with her negative experiences, Kate has a positive one with Merle Hucks. The rape becomes a bond between them and they meet in the graveyard frequently to pursue their courtship. Kate's first kiss is memorable and her self confidence slowly builds as she visits Merle's area in the remains of the Samuel T. Saxon auditorium. Kate feels the genuine connection between them as Merle confides in her about his father's accusations against him. The emotional closeness leads her to feel comfortable lying "...on top of him like a blanket,...[with] his arms squeezing [her] back"(McCorkle 224). As their heartbeats fall into rhythm, she realizes that she could stay this way forever. She envisions giving up everything to be there by his side. "On that afternoon I was prepared to do anything he wanted me to do"(McCorkle 224). In this one statement, Kate gives herself completely to Merle. Although she is not physically "his" yet, the statement, in her mind, is a submission and a gift to him. The feelings Kate holds in the auditorium remain even in the graveyard and then on to Mrs. Poole's house. Ironically, Kate's most emotional and sensitive moments are about to happen in the "man's man room"(McCorkle 256). The deer and the marlin along the wall do not affect Kate's decision to lose her virginity and all of her feelings combine to give her a powerful sense of understanding within herself. She is in her escape and she is "...more sure than ever before that there were no guarantees"(McCorkle 257). As she "seizes the day," Kate feels her moment of complete peace and knows that she understands the true meaning of sexuality. Her first sexual experience, as is for most people, is a cherished memory and Kate comes to this conclusion from her past experiences. Angela, her father, Cleva, Misty, Dean, Mo, Dexter, and Perry all contribute to Kate's perception that true sexuality lies in love as well as physical endeavors. She gains this understanding through the good and bad experiences of others, as well as her own encounters.
Including mortality and sexuality, Kate acquires a general knowledge of humanity in the form of her relationships with Angela, Mo, Mrs. Poole, and Cleva. First, she wishes relentlessly for a mother figure in Angela. Angela's beauty seizes Kate and she compares her captivating appearance to Cleva's burly figure and tight, conservative ways. She even goes so far as to believe Misty's opinion that she is adopted and her biological mother is Angela. Kate holds on to the escalated view of Angela and even, as Atticus Finch would say, "walks around in her skin" when she runs away from home. Kate finally loses her feelings for Angela when Kate sees Angela's own promiscuity at the end of the novel. She realizes that the mother-daughter relationship between them is false and that Angela is not consistent or dependable. Second, Kate idolizes Mo due to her eccentricities and oddities and also compares her to Cleva. The two women are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum and Kate uses the fact to place Mo on a pedestal. She develops a close relationship with Mo, likewise wishing she were her mother. Mo shatters most of Kate's respect for her when she abandons her family, but Kate cannot condemn her when she is dead. In dealing with her death, Kate comes to a resolution about Mo and finds that everyone has faults. Consequently, Kate only focuses on the good qualities when she thinks back about Mo. Thirdly, Kate holds a distant relationship with Mrs. Poole who is described as "...the busybody neighbor, the wicked witch, ...a misplaced woman"(McCorkle 35). Although she does not want Mrs. Poole as a mother, she does learn a few lessons from her character. Mrs. Poole opens Kate's eyes to issues of class and race in her comments about the Hucks's and their money and her comments about blacks coming to live in their once respectable neighborhood. While Mrs. Poole is one of the few constants in Kate's life of numerous changes, Kate does not adhere to her views of "...the neighborhood going down"(McCorkle 7) due to the colored people replacing the "decent" people. Lastly, Kate's relationship with Cleva takes a drastic change but it takes years of growing and maturing to achieve the level that they do. In her younger years, as she wishes for other mothers, Kate spurns Cleva's criticisms on her birthmark and her choice in games. Kate obtains her insecurity about her birthmark from Cleva and carries that uncertainty into all of her later relationships. Along the same lines, it is Cleva's "...very own words, her very own...-that had gotten [Kate] imaging Helen [Keller's] life in the first place"(McCorkle 20). Apparently, Cleva is the cause of Kate's low self-image but she remains constant in her life. Cleva is always there, only changing her ways when she is on a "vacation" day. The discrepancies in their mother-daughter relationship finally explode when Cleva catches Kate in bed with Merle. It takes this graphic, horrifying event for Cleva and Kate to review their relationship and Kate resolves that "...for every time she had misjudged me, I had also misjudged her"(McCorkle 276). Kate ends the novel with a better understanding of her mother, only with the guidance of her experiences along the way. By means of her relationships, both good and bad, Kate encounters change within herself and finds that people are not always what they seem.
The story of Kate's coming of age, parallel to the story of Jane Eyre, is full of inconsistencies that she must sort and attempt to organize to create some sort of order. By way of her experiences, which is imperative in acquiring knowledge, Kate comes to terms with death, sex, and relationships in order to understand everyone in her life, and ultimately to understand her own place in life. She obtains a vast amount of knowledge in seventeen years but she still has quite a long road ahead of her.