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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1754

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...

(The entire section contains 1754 words.)

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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 housekeeper, and her husband’s secretary bring home the fact that Hawk’s confusion is a serious problem. As Minor presses her to make a final decision between himself and Hawk, Courtney must choose between her personal happiness and the socially correct, conservative course of staying with her husband.

Anna Todd has become a famous romance novelist, with thirty- two steamy novels to her credit. Anna once wrote literary fiction, inspired by her childhood in the backwoods and hollers of Appalachia; when publishers rejected her Appalachian tales as too disturbing for a popular audience, Anna turned to romance. Anna married her college sweetheart, a scholarly graduate student who left her when she surpassed him professionally; realizing she was pregnant, she resolved to bear and raise their child alone, but her baby was stillborn. She then lived with a painter who helped her build a career around romance novels and endorsements, but he died unexpectedly while they were having sex. Anna has since remade herself into a flamboyant, aging diva swathed in layers of chiffon. Although she agrees to accompany the other women on Baby Ballou’s final voyage, Anna has worked hard to forget her past and hopes they will not remind her too much of the girl she was in college. She spends most of the cruise alone in her cabin, fantasizing about the cabin boy and writing her thirty-third novel, in which a Louisiana heiress stamps her tiny feet in fury at the swarthy Cajun who will obviously be sweeping her into his powerful arms by the story’s end.

Catherine Wilson is accompanied on the Belle of Natchez by her third husband, Russell, who is getting on her nerves. Catherine is a successful artist who makes large lawn sculptures from scrap metal; Russell is having a midlife crisis. His comical idiosyncracies include his consuming fear that he will have a heart attack (he actually witnesses another steamboat passenger’s death of a heart attack in the steamboat bar) and his obsession with the women meteorologists on the Weather Channel.

The 1965 raft trip forms a disappointingly small part of Smith’s story, although it was inspired by an actual raft trip Smith took with her friends in college. Just as Smith and her peers found the river more wild and difficult to travel than expected, the fictional Mary Scott College girls encounter torrential rain, merciless mosquitoes, and an endless diet of tuna sandwiches. The other six college students who traveled down the river on the raft are profiled briefly at the end of the book.

Death plays a greater part in these women’s lives than marriages or the births of children; tragic events overtake the women’s expectations. Baby Ballou deeply mourned the deaths of her mother and brother; Catherine and Harriet suffered the deaths of younger siblings when they were young; Anna’s child was stillborn and her partner died while making love to her; Catherine’s second husband was killed in a convenience store robbery. In contrast, births and marriages are barely mentioned—Courtney and Catherine’s relationships with their grown children are not close—and seem not to have the same level of impact. These are women who became adults in the early 1960’s, when marriages were made out of a sense of obligation and need for respectability.

The Last Girls is a departure for Smith, whose earlier works have told stories of Appalachian life. Challenged to write about women more like herself—educated, successful Southern women—Smith chose to focus on a group of women in their fifties and show that their lives did not follow stereotypical patterns but were rich with comedy, tragedy, and possibilities for change. Harriet, Courtney, Anna, and Catherine are strong characters whose lives embody myriad experiences and challenges met, but in college they were considered “girls” who would need husbands to care for them. The expectation that each would find true love, marry, and live happily ever after proved unrealistic—only Baby, the wild one, appears to have achieved it.

In The Last Girls Smith tells a wealth of stories, not only those of the five college roommates, but those of other women and men in their lives. Smith also imbues her characters with their own ideas about, fascination with, and reliance on stories and storytelling. Each of the women protagonists took creative writing classes in college, and each is very creative in ways either directly or indirectly related to telling stories.

Anna writes predictable, comforting genre fiction, compensating for the tragedies she has suffered (Anna notes that romance novels must end just as the lovers unite, before anything can happen to them). Harriet has become a community college English teacher and specializes in helping women write personal stories about their own lives. At one point Anna and Harriet argue about what makes a story a story, Anna insisting that a satisfying, conventional ending is essential to real storytelling. On the Belle of Natchez Harriet begins a tentative romance with the ship’s official historian, fascinated with his job as a professional storyteller. Even Courtney has created a story of sorts, an image of herself as the perfect Southern lady whose home is a showplace and whose shoes always perfectly match her dress—all carefully documented in voluminous scrapbooks she carries with her on the cruise.

The most poignant story is the one Baby Ballou’s husband Charlie Mahan tells in a letter to Harriet. Questions remain about Baby’s death. Her story has been told largely through Harriet’s memories, and Charlie has the last word as Harriet reads his letter aloud and Baby’s ashes are scattered in the Mississippi. Charlie details the devotion Baby (whom he calls “Maggie”) felt for her children and grandchildren, and the plans she was making for a traditional family Christmas when she accidentally drove her car off the side of a bridge. Charlie refers obliquely to an ongoing illness of Baby, assuming Harriet will understand, and Harriet, recalling Baby’s self-destructive tendencies, believes Baby committed suicide. However, realizing that Baby’s life went on after college, Harriet is able to resolve her guilt and move forward in her own.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, September 22, 2002, p. F1.

Booklist 98 (May 15, 2002): 1555.

Kirkus Reviews 70 (July 1, 2002): 914.

Library Journal 127 (June 15, 2002): 96.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (October 6, 2002): 19.

Publishers Weekly 249 (July 1, 2002): 44.

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