Sue Ellen Bridgers, a native of North Carolina, is a writer of realistic young adult novels and other stories that sensitively examine some of the tough issues that teenagers face. Confining her experience to the small Appalachian towns she knew as a child, she draws on her background as the source for her examination of kinship and connections among families, and the conflicts that arise when teenagers try to navigate through the scrutiny of small communities and families on the way to their own identities.
Sue Ellen Bridgers while becoming a popular Young Adult author has remained a small-town person intensely involved in her family and her community. Her award-winning novels have established her place as one of the best young-adult writers confirmed by the articles and books (some preserved in other media) discussing her works.
Sue Ellen Bridgers (nee Hunsucker) was born in 1942 in Greenville, North Carolina to Wayland and Elizabeth Abbott Hunsucker. She grew up in nearby Winterville where most of her large, extended family was involved in farming. She was the middle of three children having a sister, Sandra, two years older and a brother, Abbott, almost six years younger. She grew up in a close knit family with grandparents, uncles, and aunts always nearby.
Bridgers attended Eastern Carolina State College (now East Carolina University) in 1960, but did not graduate. In 1963, she married Ben Oshel Bridgers who was one of her English instructors at ECSC. Her new husband joined the Air Force, and the newly married couple moved to Mississippi and then South Dakota. Upon leaving the service, Ben Bridgers enrolled in law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating from law school, Ben and Sue Ellen, with their three children, Elizabeth Abbott, Jane Bennett, and Sean MacKenzie, settled in Sylva, a small town in western North Carolina to begin Ben's law career.
When her third child entered elementary school, Sue Ellen returned to college at Western Carolina University, graduating with highest honors in 1976, the same year that her first novel, Home Before Dark, was published. She went on to publish five more novels and many short stories. She has received numerous awards for her writings, and her papers are currently placed in special archives in Hunter Library at Western Carolina University. Sue Ellen Bridgers currently resides in Sylva, North Carolina. Her office address is P.O. Box 248, Sylva, North Carolina 28779. (Hipple, 1990).
There are many examples of how Bridgers' background has influenced her writings. Bridgers' writings show the influence of her own rural background. The settings are small southern towns and the characters try to remain steadfast to values that are part of the culture of small-town America. Her strong ties to her extended family as a child and her strong commitment to family as an adult are also evident in her books and stories. She focuses on family relationships and stresses that often threaten family unity. The knowledge of one of these stresses, mental illness, is based again on first hand experience. Sue Ellen Bridgers grew up with a father who battled mental illness, depression, for most of his adult life. In Notes for Another Life, Kevin's fears that his father's mental illness will appear in him are reflections of the fear of the author when she was his age. (Hipple, 1990, 44)
Sue Ellen Bridgers draws also on her own roots for the portrayal of women in her writing. "I am . . . interested in family relationships, especially the tradition of the southern woman's two faces-gentility and power-as portrayed in a domestic setting" (Commire, 1981, 56). The important influence of her grandmother on her early years is evident in her portrayal of older women in important roles. The grandmothers, for example, in All Together Now and Notes for Another Life, share the wisdom and the commitment to family that the author herself experienced in her own life with her own grandmothers. A further evidence of her feminist leanings is shown in the roles of the women in her novels. Although some critics have attacked her novels as being "a propaganda vehicle for female domesticity" (see review, French), this interpretation shows a superficial understanding of the roles of the women in Bridgers' novels. Although Bliss, in Notes for Another Life, has lived as a homemaker all of her life, her character shows such strength and resiliency that the reader never doubts her ability to handle any situation. Bridgers' portrayal of Karen in the same novel again shows her feminist leanings. The author is never judgmental about Karen. She simply states the facts of Karen's life-that Karen does what she has to do to survive. Bridgers' male characters are often less instrumental in her writings. For example, Bill in Notes for Another Life, is only a background character. Again, this is probably a response to the author's childhood, to her mentally ill father who was often away.
Sue Ellen Bridgers writes realistic novels for young adults. The young people in her novels act out their emotional dilemmas in the context of an extended family and in a small town setting where traditional values are strongly rooted. The realism in her novels is a direct result of her own background, and Sue Ellen Bridgers, by drawing heavily on her own experience, has created honest and enjoyable fiction for young adults.
Although Sue Ellen Bridgers is known for her young adult novels, she has also written other stories and articles, many of which reflect on her childhood. "Talk before Young Adult Workshop at Charlotte-Mecklenburg" is an article in which Sue Ellen Bridgers explains her writing. After establishing a family, working on a degree, and writing a book, she was questioned, "What are you going to do when you grow up?" Without having a response, she began to evaluate her own life chronologically and from that created her characters.
In "Writing for My Life," Sue Ellen Bridgers begins with her grandfather's death and continues to the writing of her novels. She discusses each book, how she creates the characters or how they create themselves within her. Bridgers' mother pushed her daughter to get out and discover what she really wanted out of life, something her mother had never been able to do.
The "Different Truth for Women in Sue Ellen Bridgers' Permanent Connections" discusses the inner plots of the story as well as the creation of characters. Instead of describing the story from a male character's viewpoint, she chooses to reveal her ideas through the women in the story and their struggles. Each of the women, Coralee, Ginny, and her daughter, Ellery, are facing changes that affect how they will view life and living.
A story written by Bridgers as a young woman is "All Summer Dying" which achieved a second place award in the Young Writers Fiction Contest. The story is about a mother and her two daughters looking for their grandfather. The grandfather no longer remembers anything due to the affects of a stroke. The story unfolds around the events before and after they locate their grandfather and is autobiographical.
Annie Gerhardt is comfortable. Her stable world of family, community, and high school is unvarying and predictable. She and her best friend, Jill, talk on the phone every night, and her boyfriend, Peter (too good to be true) is creative, sensible, and intelligent. Her secure world at Whitney High is about to be altered when she befriends a new student, Christine Moore. Annie, dismayed that Christine might lose a lead in the school musical, offers to take her home after rehearsal until Christine's working mother can pick her up. Ostensibly, Christine appears to be like Annie's other friends. Christine and her mother have moved North to care for her grandparents while her father has stayed in Charlotte to sell his business. Her only sibling has died of leukemia. Annie soon discovers that Christine's version of her life and family are not quite true.
Annie is attracted to Christine because she is different. She represents a breath of fresh air from the outside which energies Annie's cozy, cotton-wool world. Annie, excited by her initial success in resolving Christine's problems, launches herself into another quest to rescue her English class debate, thereby involving her mother who is seeking intellectual challenges beyond her role as wife and mother. Quickly Anne Gerhardt discovers that her impetuous reordering of lives has not resulted in happy endings but has unleashed a series of events that are upending her world. Christine is not just a house guest in Anne's life, she is taking it over. She disrupts her friendships with Jill and Peter, attempts a seduction of her older brother, Greg, and involves her younger sister, Martha, in an abortive shoplifting incident. Finally, she becomes the catalyst for a near-tragedy. Christina's true world begins to emerge hidden behind the make-believe facade she has created. Her father left them years before, they are almost destitute and had to move in with the grandparents. The sibling died at birth. The contrast between Anne's and Christina's worlds becomes starker: one, idealistically warm and uncomplicated, the perfect teenage haven; the other, cold, frightening and unstable. Annie's confusion and initial inability to cope with Christina while her world cracks around her is coupled with her naive belief that people aren't as devious as Christina. Her sheltered life has left her unprepared for the assault of Christina's manipulations. The two girls are trying to establish friendship on a quicksand of lies and fantasies.
Bridgers' conversational writing style does serve to elucidate her teen and adult characters. However, young readers may be discouraged by the slow progress of events in the middle of the story and by some of the language uttered by these teenagers. For example, Annie's image of Peter's wild hawk flying free into "...a life of her own full of risks and adventures..." as she is simultaneously whispering farewell to Christina seems out of character for the rather unimaginative figure presented to that point. Or Peter's comment to Annie, "silver apples of the moon," as he touches her cold cheeks only reinforces his unrealistic perfection. Although Bridgers' story captures the essence of complicated teenage relationships, the language and the plot do not always support her characters to make them totally believable within the story. At the end of the novel, Christina remains an unresolved figure, albeit more compelling than Annie Gerhardt and her friends who cannot quite grasp Christina's pain and her compulsion to upset their placid world. Christina's reality becomes more believable than Annie's cocoon.
Sue Ellen Bridgers' Home Before Dark is a novel which centers around fourteen-year old Stella and her family. For the first fourteen years of Stella's life her parents have been migrant workers moving throughout Florida, never settling down or establishing roots in one place. Finally, the family moves back to her father's home and settles down. This move causes problems between Stella's parents, which are enhanced by her constant inquiries about where her father grew up. The following quotation demonstrates this: ""Lord, it was so long ago," he would say. "I don't remember Stella." But he'd say it looking at Mae instead of her. It was her mother that didn't want him to remember, who didn't want to hear."" (p. 4).
The house they acquire is a tenant's house which is half-painted, but the following quotation describes how Stella views things at this point of her life: "The door swung open without a creak and Stella stepped inside. Because the room was bare, it seemed very large to her. In her mind, it was an empty, dusty world of filtered light waiting for her to clean it up and fill it with her whole life. She walked slowly into the next room and then the next, through shades of brown and gray and sun-bright white, down the narrow side porch into the kitchen and tiny bathroom. Then she turned and, looking back at where she'd been, saw how good living there could be." (p.14- 15).
Stella is an very lively girl who wants to explore life, but all the new experiences, such as boys, coping with tragedy, adjusting to a life she never knew, and making decisions which are more advanced than what is expected of someone her age, come fast.
This story is not only heartwarming and sad, but very moving in the way it is written. The reader stays captivated from the start, following the story through its entirety. Sue Ellen Bridgers presents us with a character who has been immune to many of life's experiences that we take for granted. Through the character of Stella, one is faced with decisions which are made on a regular basis, but looked at from a totally different perspective.
The reader can associate with the pleasure of being accepted by other people, especially if it is people they enjoy being with. For Stella this happens when she spends time with Toby and Rodney. She likes each of the boys in a different way. Toby is the person she chooses to confide in and make a lasting friendship with, while the relationship with Rodney ends up dissolving.
Certain choices that Stella must face are not typical of teenagers, but each is part of growing up. When Stella's family first moves into the house, it is something solid that she is able to call hers. Once her father remarries and moves into Maggie's house, Stella feels that it is not her own place. Through time and her own inner growth, she learns to accept the fact that home means more that four walls surrounding you, but it encompasses many different things such as family and established roots.
While reading Home Before Dark the reader actually faces some of the same situations which Stella faces. The difference for some of us is that we have had stable backgrounds and are not new to all of the feelings Stella is facing when the family returns to her father's home. First she must accept the fact that they are not moving every week, and then she must come to terms with experiencing life's unexpected events, some good and some bad.
Notes for Another Life is an enjoyable novel targeted for a young adult audience. The novel is set in the present day (published in 1981) in a small Southern town. The setting is important since it sets the tone for the values of the characters: the importance of family, the sense of community, and the role of the church in the lives of the townspeople. In this novel, the author, Sue Ellen Bridgers, examines the relationships in a dysfunctional family. The parents, although not absent, are not the primary care givers to the two teenage children, Kevin and Wren. Kevin and Wren are being raised by their grandparents, Bill and Bliss Jackson because their father, Tom, is mentally ill and spends most of his time in a mental hospital and their mother, Karen, has chosen to pursue her career in Atlanta, five hours away, and leave the children with their grandparents. Tom, Bill and Bliss' son, returns home occasionally, but it is clear that he will probably never be completely well. It is never clear if Tom's mental illness was a result of his wife's ambitions or if Karen's ambitions were a result of Tom's mental illness. In any case, the teenagers view Karen's departure as an abandonment. They both feel abandoned by their father as he retreats into his own private world and by their mother as she chooses her career over a life with them. Grandparents Bliss and Bill have taken over for their son and daughter-in-law in providing a warm and loving home for their grandchildren.
During one of her infrequent visits, Karen announces to her children that she is moving to Chicago. The news of the move is extremely traumatic for Kevin whose anger and sense of despair is fueled even more by his parent's seeming inability to love him. Karen does love him, in her own way, and Wren seems to understand this better than Kevin. She understands better her mother's need for fulfillment because she also has ambitions to become a concert pianist.
This understanding of her mother's point of view, however, is complicated by Wren's new found love for Sam, an almost too-good-to-be-true high school freshman. Kevin's conception of his mother's leaving continues to fester, and he becomes increasingly fearful that his father's mental illness is starting to show up in him, his girlfriend breaks up with him, and lastly, he breaks his arm forcing him to give up his much-loved tennis for the summer. All of these negatives in his life come to a head and he tries to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills.
Bliss discovers Kevin in time and rushes Kevin to the hospital. He is helped by their new minister, a young, motorcycle-riding counselor, who enables Kevin to understand that his mother's leaving is something he will just have to accept and that he can have a bright future. The story ends with things looking brighter for the entire family. Wren, through her relationship with Sam, has come to understand her mother a little better. Kevin understands himself a little better, that he is a human being capable of success in spite of his parents, and Bliss finds some solace for the lose of her son, Tom, through her love for and nurturing of Wren and Kevin.
Notes for Another Life is a moving story, well written and entertaining. Its major flaw is the maturity level of Wren, especially when she is depicted in the relationship with Sam. Their heavy discussions of their futures together seem out of character for a thirteen year old girl. The relationship between Sam and Wren may not be believable to young readers. Sam and Wren appear to be too young to be as serious as they are about life. In this story a high school freshman (Sam) and a girl ending the eighth grade (Wren) are discussing their futures-college, marriage, family. The author has given them a maturity beyond their years. However, the scenario does enable Wren to come around to her mother's point of view and understand a woman's need for outside fulfillment. Wren begins to understand that love of family and love of career can be combined, that her mother's all-or-nothing attitude does not have to be perpetuated in her own life. "Loving Sam was what would make everything right. She wouldn't be like Karen, giving up husband and children for a career" (194).
Kevin's self-pity and his wise and loving Grandmother's acceptance of his self-pity is also difficult to believe. A teenage boy is not usually so introspective, and Bliss's acceptance of his destructive behavior seems to go against her other child-rearing techniques.
In spite of these flaws, Notes for Another Life is a fine work of literature for young adults, well worthy of reading, and has, in fact, been shown to be extremely popular with young adult readers.
"This story is in part an examination of the nature of friendship and loyalty, as well as the responsibility and danger inherent in choosing relationships." From: Camarata, Corinne. "Bridgers." Review of Keeping Christina, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. School Library Journal. July 1993: 98.
"As in other Bridgers' novels, Keeping Christina has strong adult characters, a fluent style that makes for comfortable reading, and a relevant theme." From: Review of Keeping Christina, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. English Journal January 1994: 78-9.
" Bridgers's characterization is classic. She adroitly portrays the subtle nuances of Annie's do- good self-sacrifice and restlessness with her life." From: Review of Keeping Christina, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. Wilson Library Bulletin. January 1994: 120.
"Normal here is too good to be true, especially the boyfriend , who's as wise, tender, and supportive as any formula mentor. ...The resolution is too neat, loyalty too easily defined, but Christina is drawn with real complexity: she's weird and 'she doesn't look like us,' but she's both fragile and destructive." From: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Keeping Christina, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. Booklist. July 1993: 1957.
"The character studies are thorough and concise; the author records equally well the emotions of a middle-aged man and a teen-aged girl, and she is able to explore the innermost thoughts of her characters within the confines of a few pages. Perceptive, masterful writing for mature readers." From: Review of Home Before Dark, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. The Horn Book Magazine. April 1977: 165-166.
"In her masterfully constructed novel, Home Before Dark, the author looks at the lives of migrant workers and at the need to settle and the need not to settle for failure and success. Flawlessly written and loaded, like the great Southern novels, with gothic humor and with fascinating characters, Home Before Dark is a likely candidate for the young adult novel teenagers and adults will read for years to come." From: Review of Home Before Dark, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. The English Journal. September 1980: 89.
"A beautifully constructed novel concerns Kevin Jackson, sixteen, and his thirteen year old sister Wren. . . . The only flaw in the book might be the fact that Kevin and Wren are still so open to being hurt by their parents after eight years with supportive grandparents and a stable life with many friends. The affection between Kevin and Wren and their relationship with their friends are particularly well portrayed, as is the grandmother's dilemma over her responsibilities for her son and her grandchildren. An excellent novel which ends realistically with unanswered questions and unresolved situations." From: Flowers, A.A. Review of Notes for Another Life, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. Horn Book. December 1981: 667.
" . . . The blurb suggests that this is a "family chronicle for all ages." It would have been more accurate to describe it as a propaganda vehicle for female domesticity. Good women subordinate their talents and yearnings to the home and their children; all other paths lead to havoc. . . . " From: French, Janet. Review of Notes for Another Life, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. School Library Journal. September 1981: 133.
". . . Sue Ellen Bridgers understands that the past can never be completely erased, but she also knows how to teach her characters how to cope with the present. If only she didn't jump back and forth so often from one character's viewpoint to another's! At the end the reader feels that he's[sic] been on a series of short trips rather than on a continuous journey. But in any case the travel has been rewarding." From: Fritz, Jean. "The Heroine Finds a Way." Review of Notes for Another Life, by SueEllen Bridgers. New York Times Book Review. 15 November 1981: 56-58.Greenlaw, M. Jean. Rev. of Notes for Another Life, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. Journal of Reading. February 1982: 486.
"In this complex story of loss and change, a brother and sister come to accept and understand their parents. In so doing, they learn much about themselves and their power to shape their own futures. The strong bond between the two, partially in response to their shared loss, shows up time and again in their concern for the sensitivity to one another. Though they want to help each other, in the end they each must work through their own conflicts --- Kevin his depression that so resembles his father's, Wren her ambition so like her mother's. Only when they accept themselves can they be a real support to one another." From: Review of Notes for Another Life, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. The Bookfinder. vol. 3.1985: 43-44.
". . . The structure (of the book) is adequate, but it is not in the structure that the book is most impressive, it is in the perceptively drawn characters and in the intricacy and pain and love in their interrelationships." From: Review of Notes for Another Life, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. October 1981: 23-24.Review of Notes for Another Life, by Sue Ellen Bridgers. Publisher's Weekly. 4 September 1981: 56.
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Created March 22, 1996, Last Revised September 20, 1996 and is continuously revised.