(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Lee Smith’s tenth novel focuses on five women who were once undergraduate roommates at a Southern women’s college. In 1965, inspired by a handsome young instructor’s dramatic reading of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the five young women joined with six others and sailed down the Mississippi River on a raft, earning some notoriety as local newspapers photographed the spunky college girls and less adventurous, land-bound housewives offered them picnic lunches along the river.

Thirty-five years later, Harriet Holding, Catherine Wilson, Courtney Ralston, and Anna Todd travel again down the Mississippi, retracing the route of their earlier trip—this time on the Belle of Natchez, a luxury cruise ship full of elderly tourists. When the Belle docks in New Orleans they will scatter the ashes of a fifth college roommate, Margaret “Baby” Ballou, who drove her car off a bridge—perhaps accidentally, perhaps not—on a beautiful clear day just before Christmas. According to Baby’s husband, in the weeks before her death she spoke of reuniting with Harriet, Anna, Catherine, and Courtney to re- create their youthful trip downriver; now he has contacted each of the women and asked them to make this final voyage with Baby’s remains.

Baby was a Southern belle, a promiscuous young woman from a wealthy family who could not help behaving badly, rather to Harriet Holding’s vicarious delight. Shy Harriet was Baby’s roommate in college; on theBelle of Natchez trip she brings along several pages of Baby’s handwritten poetry from their college days, preserved by Harriet through all the ensuing years. The poems reveal Baby’s desperate grief for her deceased mother and younger brother. Baby’s mother was apparently a lower-class woman who “drank gin like water/ all day long” and whom her father had forgotten in favor of Baby’s more socially acceptable stepmother. Baby’s poems also reveal an inner turmoil. A beautiful debutante, she meets social expectations but feels like a “bitch” trapped inside, “locked/ behind [a] chain-link fence/ where she paces/ back and forth.”

At Mary Scott College Harriet introduced Baby to her childhood friend Jefferson Carr. It seemed briefly to Harriet that she and Jeff might have become a couple, but instead Jeff and Baby were drawn together and began a passionate romance. Jeff, solid and dependable, was a student at Shenandoah Military Institute and planned a career as an officer, but he jeopardized those plans when he broke several school rules in efforts to entertain Baby. When she broke up with the adoring Jeff (“if you could possibly/ Assist me off this pedestal please/ It’s hurting my ass”), Jeff left school in despair, joined the Army, and was killed in a helicopter crash during basic training.

Harriet’s friendship with Baby did not survive Jefferson Carr’s death, and Harriet actually has no idea how Baby spent the years since college graduation. Harriet felt partly responsible for Carr’s death; shortly after Baby ended her relationship with Carr, Harriet went to see him, intending to try and reunite the doomed couple; instead she had sex with the grieving Jeff herself and left without mentioning Baby. Harriet has lived for years with the guilt of having (in her view) allowed the great true love between Baby Ballou and Jefferson Carr to perish; believing her intervention could have saved their romance and thus Jefferson’s life, Harriet has never married or even seriously dated, never allowing herself to build the sort of domestic life she thinks Baby and Jeff might have had together.

Courtney Gray Ralston finds herself torn between Hawk Ralston, her philandering husband of thirty-five years, and Gene Minor, her long-time lover. After several years of clandestine meetings, Minor has suddenly demanded that Courtney leave her husband, although Hawk is becoming increasingly confused and forgetful and Courtney feels it would be inappropriate to desert him. Courtney has worked hard to maintain an image of Southern gentility in her marriage to the wealthy Hawk, even while he has been habitually unfaithful to her. Courtney struggles to convince herself that Hawk is fine; during the cruise, however, a series of telephone calls to her daughter, her...

(The entire section is 1754 words.)