Lee Smith, who teaches creative writing at North Carolina State University, practices what she teaches. Smith has published five novels—The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed (1968), Something in the Wind (1971), Fancy Strut (1973), Black Mountain Breakdown (1980), Oral History (1983)—and a collection of short stories, Cakewalk (1981). All of her books have been well received, but the critical response to Oral History has made it clear that the most recent of her books is her finest to date. It should also be clear to anyone who has followed her career that Lee Smith is continuing to develop as a writer and that she deserves to be considered one of the most promising young novelists at work today.
Smith has been compared to Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner. The comparisons are valid, for Oral History has the resonant sense of place and the careful attention to the idioms of Southern speech characteristic of these writers. It is also the work of a captivating storyteller. Once such general comparisons are made, however, it is important to point out that there is nothing derivative about Smith’s work. The comparisons come to mind not simply because she writes out of the Southern experience but because of the level of her talent. Much of the charm of Oral History derives from its local and regional color, but the view of life which it reflects and its stylistic and structural rhythms are distinctive and original.
The narrative line of the novel begins in the present with an oral-history project that leads Jennifer Bingham, a community-college student, to Hoot Owl Holler in the mountains of northern Virginia to visit relatives whom she does not remember. Through an artful and unobtrusive shift in point of view, the reader moves from the third-person perspective of the present to a first-person voice from the distant past. The voice is that of Granny Younger, who says that she can tell us more than we want to know as she spins out the story of Jennifer’s great-grandfather and the curse which became part of the family legacy.
Almarine Cantrell, who inherited his father’s house and property in the late nineteenth century, became infatuated with Red Emmy, whose father, it was believed, had sold her to the devil. Almarine finally broke the spell of lust that she had cast upon him and threw her out of his log-cabin home. Later, he married Pricey Jane, a dark-haired beauty whose origins were almost as hazy as those of Red Emmy. The marriage ended in tragedy when, apparently as a result of Red Emmy’s powers, Pricey Jane and her infant son died from dew poison. Granny believes that Almarine, consumed by grief and rage, took his own revenge by murdering Red Emmy, whose curse then fell upon his descendants.
The story proceeds to trace this legacy of violence and disaster through succeeding generations by means of a kind of incremental revelation, presented through points of view that shift from first person to third person and back...
(The entire section is 1255 words.)