I just finished Lee Smith’s novel, Fair and Tender Ladies (Ballantine Reader's Circle) for the Southern Reading Challenge, graciously hosted by Maggie at Maggie Reads.
I had never read anything by Smith before, but she was an author I’d been meaning to read for years. I’m glad this challenge came along—it gave me a push to finally read Smith’s work.
Fair and Tender Ladies is an epistolary novel, a form I don't always love. Sometimes it's just too obvious how far the writer has had to reach to fit the information they want to impart into a letter—so it doesn’t feel natural, it feels forced.
But not here. The letters here do feel natural. This is mostly because Smith has created such an accessible, genuine main character in her letter-writer, Ivy Rowe.
Ivy is spunky and smart, one of nine siblings living with her parents on a mountain farm in Sugar Fork, in Appalachian Virginia. The book follows her turbulent life, from her girlhood around the turn of the century until she is an old woman, seven decades later.
Ivy loves to read, write and learn, and wants to make a living as a writer. She also loves the tradition of storytelling that is a part of her Appalachian family’s background. In her drive for education, Ivy almost goes up north to school. But life, and passion, get in the way, and Ivy ends up pregnant and “ruint”. Though Ivy experiences heartbreak and loss, and her life becomes one of hard farm labor and childrearing, she never loses her sense of humor. And her love for the mountain country of her birth ends up sustaining her as much as the love she gives to and receives from her family.
In an interview at the back of this edition of the book (the Ballantine Reader’s Circle edition), Lee Smith tells the story of finding a box of letters at a yard sale where two sisters were selling everything their dead mother had owned. Smith was shocked that they had absolutely no interest in reading or keeping the letters, so she bought them. And she learned so much about the woman’s life and her friends and family that she was inspired to write a novel in letters.
In the interview, Smith also talks about being a Southern writer, and touches on what Maggie asked us to think about during this challenge, the sense of place we find in Southern writing. Smith says she is proud to be both a “Southern writer” and a “woman writer”, but she’s more accurately an “Appalachian writer”. She doesn’t relate to the same things as all Southern writers, for example, she doesn’t always relate to Faulkner’s deep South. But:
“The things that the Appalachian South—and I, as a writer—do share with the Deep South are: a strong sense of place, though my mountains are certainly different from those cotton fields; the importance of religion, family, and the past; and an important tradition of storytelling. Nobody in my family read much, but they were all world-class talkers, men and women alike. They could make a story out of anything—a little trip to the drugstore, or three birds lighting on a telephone wire…just anything. They would talk you to death—and almost did, frankly!”
"Sense of place" is one of my favorite things about this novel. Ivy's letters express her love for the mountain country of Appalachia, its plants, animals, landscape, and even the weather patterns that occur here. Even the modernization that occurs nearby, with a 1930's rural electrification project, enchants Ivy, with its lights that twinkle like stars down on the lower slopes of the mountain she lives on.
Another thing that hooked me was the voice of Ivy Rowe. Through the course of the novel, she goes from precocious child to a plain-speaking, feisty old woman—she is a vivid character and I couldn’t help but be drawn into her life. But she is always funny and observant and her own woman, even in the face of enormous pressure from others.
I also like the way that Ivy never takes to religion, though she is surrounded by it her whole life. But then, near the end of her life, Ivy comes to enjoy the Bible for its stories, poetry, and the sheer beauty of the language. I think Smith is making a point about the importance of story in Ivy’s life, and in the Applachians, and how religion is bound up with the human need for stories.
It is essentially a book about relationships, and one of my favorites is the one between Ivy and her eldest daughter, Joli. Joli is the child of Ivy’s youth, born out of wedlock to a man Ivy didn’t love, but who becomes Ivy’s favorite, who becomes the writer that Ivy wanted to be when she was young.
I love that Joli, when she grows up to be an academic and a writer, becomes fascinated by her Appalachian roots, and researches and writes about them. You get the sense that Joli is enamored of the mountain life partly because she is not of it any more—because she’s not of it, she sees it with anthropological interest. She can research it, but she can’t know it like her mother does. But her mother truly is of the mountains, she lives it. She can’t leave the mountains, no matter how many opportunites she gets to go elsewhere. There is a lovely and true generational contrast between these two women.
Fair and Tender Ladies was a poignant tale, and it really struck a chord with me. I found myself moved by many of the hardships and hard luck of Ivy’s life. The novel left me thinking about sense of place and sense of home, and how important these things are for everyone.