Osborn, Karen 1954-
OSBORN, Karen 1954-
PERSONAL: Born April 26, 1954, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Kenton Osborn (a chemist) and Lois (Mays) Osborn; married Michael Jenkins (an assistant athletic director), May 21, 1983; children: Kaitlynn, Shannon. Ethnicity: "White." Education: Hollins College, B.A. (cum laude), 1979; University of Arkansas—Fayetteville, M.F.A., 1983.
CAREER: Novelist and poet. Arkansas Poetry in the Schools, poet, 1979-83, director, 1982-83; Clemson University, Clemson, SC, instructor in English, 1983-87; University of Kentucky, Lexington, part-time instructor in English, 1988-93. Technical writer, Clark Equipment, Inc., 1990; consultant, writing program adjunct for Engineering College, 1990-92. Has led writing workshops and given readings for numerous schools and organizations, including Writer's Voice, Augusta Round Table, Southern Festival of Books, Women Writer's Conference, and Bookfest.
AWARDS, HONORS: Hollins Literary Festival Awards for poetry and for fiction, both 1979; Nancy Thorp Prize for poetry, 1979; Mary Vincent Long Award, 1979, for distinguished literary achievement; McKean Award for poetry, 1981; Kentucky Foundation for Women grant, 1991, to fund work on Between Earth and Sky; Al Smith Artists Fellowship Award for fiction, Kentucky Arts Council, 1991; New York Times Notable Book Award, 1991, for Patchwork.
Patchwork, Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 1991.
Between Earth and Sky, Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.
The River Road, Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.
Work represented in numerous anthologies and collections, including Jumping Pond: Poems and Stories from the Ozarks, edited by Michael Burns and Mark Sanders, Southwest Missouri State University, 1983; Cardinal: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Richard Krawiec, Jacar Press, 1986; and Hollins Anthology, 1991. Contributor of poems to numerous periodicals, including Artemis, Mid American Review, Seattle Review, Tar River Poetry, Embers, Southern Review, Kansas Quarterly, Poet Lore, Passages North, Montana Review, Centennial Review, and Wisconsin Review.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A fourth novel and a memoir.
SIDELIGHTS: Karen Osborn once told CA, "I started out as a poet, and I think the language of my fiction is still grounded in rhythm, image, and metaphor. I've moved so often in my life that it's hard to say that I'm from a particular region, although I've spent long periods of time in the South and feel an affinity with that part of the country. So far, each of my books takes place in a very different kind of location, and each has its own unique structure. As a writer, I like the challenge of taking on an unusual point of view or subject matter, so I've used techniques like letters and multiple points of views, and I've been drawn to characters who are very different from myself. For me, much of the excitement in writing comes from where that takes me and what I learn from having to stretch my own voice to meet it."
Praise for Osborn's first novel, Patchwork, included this statement from a New York Times Book Review critic: "Ms. Osborn, herself a poet, often renders rural Southern dialect into something close to poetry." A reviewer for Atlanta Constitution Journal also stated, "Many Southern writers have latched onto the quilt as a metaphor, but none has done a finer job of literary stitching than Kentucky poet Karen Osborn in Patchwork, a sensitive, unforgettable story of a South Carolina mill family." One Publishers Weekly reviewer called Patchwork an "engrossing, well-crafted, poignant first novel."
Osborn's second novel, Between Earth and Sky, spins a tale of the trials and triumphs of a remarkable pioneer woman's efforts to carve out a new life for her family in New Mexico. Told through letters, the book reflects the raw beauty of the Southwest in the period following the U.S. Civil War. Finding Between Earth and Sky rich in historical detail, a critic for Kirkus Reviews remarked that the book offers "an epistolary novel that, while not scanting the hardships and tragedies of pioneer life, luminously evokes a pristine northern New Mexico." Donna Seaman of Booklist noted that "Osborn is lyrical, focused, and enchanting."
The River Road, Osborn's next novel, was inspired by the tragic death of a student that occurred while Osborn was teaching. The book garnered the most critical attention of any of her works. In The River Road, brothers David and Michael Sanderson and their next-door neighbor Kay Richards have been friends all their lives. Kay knows she will marry one of the brothers, and her affections finally settle upon David, the older brother, and they become lovers upon entering college. One night while on a break from school, the three travel to the French King Bridge in Northfield, Massachusetts, which stretches over the Connecticut River. Kay and David drop acid and climb out onto the bridge while Michael scowls on the shore. David believes that if he jumps he will live and swim to shore. After kissing Kay, he dives into the water . . . and dies.
Kevin, David and Michael's father, cannot accept what has happened. Several possibilities might explain the events of the night: David may have jumped truly believing he would live, he may have committed suicide, or he may have been murdered. Michael, who has always been jealous of Kay's relationship with David, suggests that Kay pushed his older brother into the river. Kevin accepts this as the only plausible explanation, and he proceeds to render Kay a sex-obsessed, drug-pushing temptress and murderer. The town stands behind Kevin and Michael, Kay is put on trial for David's murder, and many lives are destroyed. In a review of The River Road for USA Today, Susan Kelly wrote, "Osborn immerses us from the beginning in the hot and cold currents of love and hate that sustain, divide, and inexorably pull us all toward an uncertain fate."
The story is told through the oscillating perspectives of Kay, Michael, and Kevin. "Osborn's use of varied points of view is her masterstroke, showing compassion for all three characters and revealing their different experiences of David: the lover of danger, the competitive brother, the gifted son," suggested Kelly. "My intention in not using David's voice was to make his presence more palpable," Osborn revealed in an interview on the HarperCollins Web site. "He becomes a character or a person as remembered by the others, so that just as it's impossible to know what actually happened that night on the bridge, it's impossible to truly know who David was....The identity or essence of an individual is a slippery thing, impossible to get one's hands around. Our many different sides are brought out by the complicated ways we relate to others."
One Publishers Weekly reviewer criticized Osborn's telling of the tragedy. "Osborn's prose is clean and neat," the reviewer wrote, "but the curious flatness of the narration—emotions blankly stated instead of evoked—robs the story of depth and power." This opinion, however, was in the minority. One Kirkus Reviews contributor stated that the novel was "carefully constructed and well told: a work of tremendous, quiet power." Carolyn See of the Washington Post also had much praise to offer Osborn. "There in no authorial ego exercised in The River Road. There is no obvious author, preening, trying and possibly failing to be smart. There is only an extraordinary effort to engage the American condition as we find it now," explained See, who applauded the author's ability to present the situation, "then adroitly slip away, leaving the reader to decide the meaning—which has nothing to do with arcane literary allusions and everything to do with the state of the human soul."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlanta Constitution Journal, July 14, 1991, review of Patchwork, p. N8.
Booklist, March 1, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Between Earth and Sky, p. 1123; October 15, 2002, Elsa Gaztambide, review of The River Road, p. 388.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1995, review of Between Earth and Sky, p. 1660; September 1, 2002, review of The River Road, p. 1257.
Library Journal, December, 2002, Christine Perkins, review of The River Road, p. 180.
New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1991, Judith Patterson, review of Patchwork, p. 11; May 12, 1996, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, May 10, 1991, review of Patchwork, p. 274; November 27, 1995, review of Between Earth and Sky, p. 49; October 14, 2002, review of The River Road, p. 64.
USA Today, January 7, 2003, Susan Kelly, review of The River Road, p. D6.
Washington Post, November 8, 2002, Carolyn See, review of The River Road, p. C2.
HarperCollins Web site,http://www.harpercollins.com/ (March 23, 2004), "Karen Osborn."
Karen Osborn Web site,http://www.karenosborn.com (April 7, 2005).
Mostly Fiction Web site,http://mostlyfiction.com/ (March 23, 2004), excerpt from and synopsis of The River Road.