I just completed Lee Smith’s book, Fair and Tender Ladies (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) for the Southern Reading Challenge, graciously managed 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 happy this problem emerged along-it gave me a press to finally read Smith’s work.
Fair and Tender Ladies can be an epistolary novel, an application I don’t always love. Sometimes it’s just too obvious what lengths the writer has already established to reach to match the information they want to impart into a letter-so it doesn’t feel natural, it feels forced. However, not here. The characters do feel natural here.
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This is mainly because Smith has generated such an accessible, genuine main personality in her letter-writer, Ivy Rowe. Ivy is spunky and smart, one of nine siblings coping with her parents on the mountain farm in Sugar Fork, in Appalachian Virginia. The publication follows her turbulent life, from her girlhood across the turn of the century until she is an old female, seven decades later.
Ivy loves to read, write and find out, and wants to produce a living as a writer. She also enjoys the tradition of storytelling that is a part of her Appalachian family’s history. In her drive for education, Ivy almost goes up north to school. But life, and passion, enter the true way, and Ivy ends up pregnant and “ruint”. Though Ivy encounters heartbreak and loss, and her life becomes one of hard farm childrearing and labor, she never loses her love of life.
And her love for the mountain country of her birth eventually ends up sustaining her just as much as the love she provides to and receives from her family. In the interview, Smith discusses being a Southern article writer also, and details on what Maggie asked us to think about during this challenge, the sense of place we find in Southern writing. Smith says she actually is happy to be both a “Southern writer” and a “girl writer”, but more accurately an “Appalachian writer” she’s. She doesn’t relate to the same things as all Southern writers, for example, she doesn’t always relate with Faulkner’s deep South.
Ivy’s letters communicate her love for the mountain country of Appalachia, its plants, animals, landscape, and even the elements patterns that occur here. Even the modernization that nearby occurs, with a 1930’s rural electrification project, enchants Ivy, with its lights that twinkle like stars down on the low slopes of the mountain she lives on. Another simple thing that connected me was the tone of voice of Ivy Rowe.
Through the span of the book, she will go from precocious child to a plain-speaking, feisty old woman-she is a stunning personality and I couldn’t help but be attracted into her life. But she actually is always funny and observant and her own female, in the face of tremendous pressure from others even. I like just how that Ivy never takes to religion also, though she is surrounded by it her whole life. But then, near the end of her life, Ivy involves benefit from the Bible because of its tales, poetry, and the pure beauty of the language.
I think Smith is making a point about the need for story in Ivy’s life, and in the Applachians, and exactly how religion is destined up with the individual need for stories. It really is essentially a book about romantic relationships, and one of my favorites is the one between Ivy and her eldest child, Joli. Joli is the youngster 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 really like that Joli, when she grows up to be an academic and a writer, becomes fascinated by her Appalachian roots, and writes and researches about them.
You get the sense that Joli is enamored of the hill life partially because she actually is not from it any more-because she’s not of it, it sometimes appears by her with anthropological interest. She can research it, but it can’t be known by her like her mom will. But her mother is of the mountains, she lives it.
She can’t leave the mountains, no matter how many opportunites she reaches go somewhere else. There is a true and lovely generational comparison between both of these women. Fair and Tender Ladies was a poignant tale, and it struck a chord beside me really. I came across myself moved by many of the hardships and hard luck of Ivy’s life. The novel left me considering sense of place and sense of home, and how important these exact things are for everyone.