Reading Lee Smith’s memoir Dimestore last year reminded me of what a good writer she is and inspired me to revisit her fiction for the first time in more than 20 years. The trouble is, aside from Black Mountain Breakdown, I have no idea which of her books I’d read before. So I decided to just go with a book that’s considered among her best—if I couldn’t remember whether I’d read it, it would probably feel like a new book.
And that turned out to be right. Bits and pieces of Fair and Tender Ladies seemed vaguely familiar, but only vaguely. It felt like I was reading it for the first time, even if I wasn’t.
The book is an epistolary novel, filled with letters written by Ivy Rowe. The letters follow her life in Appalachian Virginia from the years just before World War I through the 1970s. She begins the book as a girl who spells poorly and loves to listen to stories and ends it as an old woman with better spelling and a lifetime of memories.
Ivy is a wonderful character. Right from the start, she’s observant, imaginative, and reflective. In her letters to her teacher, various friends, her family members, and eventually her lost sister Silvaney, she tells stories about her life and that of her neighbors, muses over her past and future, and chronicles the shifts in her community. It turns out to be both a history of a place and of a person, which the person always in the foreground.
One of the things Smith does well is have Ivy’s writing evolve as she grows older, while always still feeling like it comes from the same person. Even at the start, Ivy is thoughtful and observant, a born storyteller, even if not a great speller:
So while I was riding down ther, the moon come up, the biggest prettest full moon come up just like it was any other nigt in the world, so ligt and lovely it like to took my breth. I knowed it wuld shine on no matter what, and this given me a turn. The moon dont give a damn, I said to myself, and it dont. The moonligt come down throgh the leaves as brigt as day, a cool white ligt, I culd see everything just as clear when I come riding outen the woods and seen the neghbor peoples houses all in a nice little row. I felt like the highwayman come riding, riding, up to the old inn door.
By the end of the book, her spelling is better, but she maintains her dialect and her keen sense of observation, which she applies to people, places, and herself.
As for Ivy’s life, it takes many unexpected turns, and there are many possible roads she doesn’t go down. There’s a teacher, a woman who loved Ivy and offered to take her away to Boston. There’s the boy who went away to war. There’s town life versus country life. At each step, Ivy chooses for herself, and sometimes she doesn’t even understand her own decisions, other than that she lets her feelings in the moment guide her, not worrying much about other people’s judgment.
It’s not, however, that Ivy doesn’t care what people think. In some of her letters, she frets about it, but she doesn’t let that affect her choices. When she does what people expect, it’s because she wants to. Because this is a book that honors women’s desire, whether it’s sexual desire, desire for family, or a desire to be alone. And one woman may desire each of these things over the course of a life, sometimes simultaneously, even when the desires are in conflict.
Reading this, I found myself wishing Lee Smith were more widely known and read. There aren’t many people who write about southwestern Virginia without romanticizing or treating the people as curiosities. Smith does neither of these things. Her characters are authentic and complex, likable and infuriating. If you’ve never read her books, give them a try (especially this one).