Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 207
Oral History , by Lee Smith,is a magical realist novel about 20th-century rural American life. Composed of multiple points of view throughout three generations, it follows the mountain-dwelling Cantrell family near Hoot Owl Holler and the attempt of one of their city-dwelling ancestors, Jennifer, to record their oral culture. Initially...
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Oral History, by Lee Smith,is a magical realist novel about 20th-century rural American life. Composed of multiple points of view throughout three generations, it follows the mountain-dwelling Cantrell family near Hoot Owl Holler and the attempt of one of their city-dwelling ancestors, Jennifer, to record their oral culture. Initially motivated by a college class on oral history, Jennifer immerses herself in her family's stories and unintentionally discovers that she is entangled in a web of myth.
The Cantrells' known history begins in 1902, ostensibly when a witch casts a spell on Almarine Cantrell. Intoxicated by her witchcraft, he moves in with the witch, Red Emmy. Upon discovering Emmy's nature, Almarine overcomes the spell to drive her out, only for his own wife (whom he marries later) and one of their twin children to die mysteriously during childbirth, presumably from the witch's revenge. The surviving child, Dory, has the most opaque story, moving among the mountains engaging in multiple strange affairs.
In the present day, Uncle Al kicks Jennifer out, believing that her meddling has gone too far. Jennifer concludes her report with the insight that it is impossible for any oral culture to truly recover, preserve, or "know" a story from somewhere else in time and space.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1255
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 again. The curse, in the eyes of the mountain people, is reflected in the experience of Almarine’s daughter. The beautiful golden-haired Dory falls in love with a priggish but well-meaning schoolteacher from Richmond, Richard Burlage, who has come to the backwoods to search out the meaning of his life. When circumstances and Richard’s infirmity of health and character block their union, Dory marries Little Luther Wade, a singer of mountain songs, who accepts as his own the twin girls fathered by Richard. Dory has children by Luther, who adores her, but time does not temper the grief which she feels for her lost love, and eventually she commits suicide.
The story of the different kind of disaster that befalls Pearl, one of Dory’s twin daughters, is told by her stepsister, Sally, whose character and voice are as vivid and expressive in their own way as those of Granny Younger. Pearl, on the other hand, has much in common with her father, Richard. Like him, she is a seeker. Aspiring to a better life than that which is to be found in the mountains, she goes to college and winds up as a high school art teacher in a nearby town. She marries a prosperous upholsterer and gives birth to Jennifer. Later, she falls into an affair with one of her high school students in whom she sees artistic promise. When the affair is discovered, she returns in disgrace to her mountain home, where she dies from the complications of giving birth to a dead baby who may or may not be the product of her affair with the high school student. A final act of violence involving the grief-stricken student gives renewed life to the Cantrell legend.
In the final section of the book, Jennifer learns more than she wants to know about the history of her family from her great-grandfather’s namesake, Almarine Wade, who has made his fortune with Amway.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Oral History is its stylistic virtuosity. In the voices of mountain characters from the past such as Granny Younger and Rose Hibbitts, whose frustrated love for Almarine Cantrell becomes part of the psychological basis for the development of the legend, Smith effortlessly captures the rhythm and idiom of Appalachian speech. The purity and pungency of mountain dialect stands in marked contrast to the prissy hothouse style of the journal in which Richard Burlage records his reasons for coming to the mountains and describes the development of his relationship with Dory. His prose is in its own way as stilted as the self-conscious impressions of nature which his granddaughter Jennifer sets down in her notebook at the outset of the novel. Many of the novel’s primary concerns are brought into perspective through the voice of Sally who, though she has moved to a nearby town and does not speak in mountain idiom, has something of the ungram-matical naturalness and charm of Granny Younger. Her down-to-earth acceptance of life and her acknowledgment of its mysteries associate her with the past of Hoot Owl Holler and distinguish her from self-conscious seekers of truth, beauty, and meaning such as Richard Burlage, Pearl, and Jennifer.
Oral History is too much a natural and seamless work of art to invite a simplistic statement of theme, but as the intricate and engrossing tale unfolds through the lives of many characters against the background of a changing mountain setting, an implicit distinction is made between those who live naturally and those who, out of an inflated or naïve sense of self-worth, separate themselves from the basic rhythms of life. One is also surely meant to feel the sense of loss that accompanies the movement from the past to the present. The story begins with a superstitious but unsentimentalized view of Almarine Cantrell, whose simple majesty and aura of mystery emerge from the haze of the mountain on which he lives and dies. As successive generations are introduced, one becomes conscious of the changes in the natural setting brought about first by the lumber mills and then by the coal mines. The final act of desecration is a result of a commercial enterprise undertaken by the Almarine of the present, the Amway entrepreneur who cashes in on the past by turning Hoot Owl Holler into a Disney-like theme park, Ghostland.
Oral History is full of voices that are full of life. It is funny, sad, charming, and wise. Best of all, it is a joy to read.