Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

Lee Smith’s novel Oral History is at once a family saga and a tour-de-force of story-telling. Multiple characters with conflicting memories and starkly contrasting styles, familial relationships that shatter under the strains of poverty and magic, and a present haunted by the characters’ inability to block out the past—all jostle uneasily in the crowded space of an Appalachian valley, or “holler.”

The novel clearly draws on Smith’s own experiences and emotional attachment to rural Southwestern Virginia, where she grew up. Language and religion are two important forces that shaped her personally and as a writer. Her familiarity with the cadences of the speakers’ distinctive dialects emerges throughout the book. Yet her academic training and ease of navigating the urban world of education (she is a former teacher) are equally strong forces that drive the plot and are used to account for tensions between rural and urban, and between specific characters in the past and present.

Two characters in particular are presented as outsiders to Hoot Owl Holler, where the book is set. One is the young Jennifer, who returns in the book’s present time, to her Cantrell kinfolks’ domain to do a college oral history project. The other is Richard Burlage, who had gone there in the early 20th century as a teacher from Richmond. His journal entries, often pretentiously, record his alienation and frustration at not fitting in. Caught up in the area’s Pentecostal religious practices, he becomes romantically, sexually, and —in his mind—spiritually entangled with Dory Cantrell. Their combined story and separate fates form the novel’s core, to the extent it has one, in part because they become Jennifer’s grandparents.

Positing Jennifer and Richard as outsiders, however, begs the question of the applicability of insider status to everyone else. Themes of identity, belonging, and both physical and emotional displacement apply to those born and raised in Hoot Owl. Their reasons for staying or leaving and the consequences of their decisions all drive the action. Had Dory been satisfied with her life there, she would likely not have sought escape with, or via, Richard. Many other characters experience crises at various points, and their lives are tightly, and sometimes painfully intertwined. Like Jennifer, as Ora Mae warned her, we are likely to hear what we don’t want to hear. The complex, multiple narratives clue us in to the different narrator’s agendas but keep us guessing about whose version is reliable as they up at different points; that complexity, however, sometimes verges on the chaotic.

Jones, S. (1987). “City Folks in Hoot Owl Holler: Narrative Strategy in Lee Smith's Oral History." The Southern Literary Journal, 20(1): 101-112.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access