Fair and Tender Ladies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

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...

(The entire section contains 494 words.)

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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 narrative. The themes that run through the letters tend to become extended confessions, often chatty and sometimes excessively repetitious. These difficulties are not pervasive, however, and descriptions of a mountain burial, a mining disaster, and an old folktale told by firelight, or infusions of sudden change from outside are rendered with a compelling authority and a passionate understanding of time, place, and people.

At the heart of the book, Ivy is a mountain flower growing in the wild woods, a kind of American Molly Bloom who shares with James Joyce’s “eternal woman” a sense of the love that drives life and makes its burdens possible. In her story, superbly expressed in what Smith calls “the wonderful terms and phrases and incredible strength and eloquence of the spoken language,” the southwestern Virginia mountain country is introduced to the rest of the nation in a vision of rural existence that expresses a feeling for its richness while avoiding the romanticization so tempting for defenders of the singular and little known.

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