Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

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Fair and Tender Ladies

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Among the hidden regions of American life, none has been as distorted by public prejudice and stereotype as the southern Appalachian highlands. In her fifth book set in this section of the country, Lee Smith has firmly established herself as a kind of Bard of the Blue Ridge, a writer of living history which reveals the true depth and complex vitality of a culture too long regarded as merely backward, trivial, and ignorant.

In FAIR AND TENDER LADIES, she tells the story of Ivy Rowe, born on Blue Star Mountain far from the conventional comforts of indoor plumbing, electricity, and even relatively passable roads, a woman whose spirit, sensual candor, instinctive decency, and linguistic sensitivity are revealed through a lifetime of extremely honest, reflective, and inventive letters.

Smith’s mastery of the details of the culture she describes--based on extensive research and her own childhood in Grundy, Virginia--skillfully connects the unfamiliar but fascinating customs and ways of Ivy Rowe’s family and community with wider patterns of life in the United States in this century, while the imaginative precision of her language enables her to create vivid, convincing portraits of characters many of whom are only glimpsed briefly and entirely from the outside. Ivy’s wise, granite-tough Granny Rowe; her ailing, work-broken father; and her wandering, gentleman-rake uncle Revel are archetypal figures reinvested with additional meaning into full human dimension.

The decision to present Ivy’s life through her letters permits Smith to develop her narrator through the growth of her mind, but the effects of intimacy and openness she achieves are counterbalanced by some limitations inherent in the form. The early letters use syntactical invention to capture the flavor of local dialect , but the obtrusive spelling designed to illustrate Ivy’s almost solely oral literacy becomes somewhat annoying. The length of the letters leads to a sense of multiple short chapters with many minor climaxes, inducing a kind of abrupt, choppy rhythm to...

(The entire section is 494 words.)