Characters

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650

Illustration of PDF document

Download Oral History Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Oral History, the third novel by fiction-writer Lee Smith, tells of a modern-day community college student who travels to the remote Appalachian Mountain town of Hoot Owl Holler to chronicle an oral history of her ancestors, which leads to tales of incest, witchcraft, suicide, superstition, murder, and numerous other tragedies. The story weaves together a multitude of viewpoints, with each character lending a unique voice to create a portrait of this enigmatic multi-generational family.

These are the key characters in the story.

Jennifer Bingham: She pursues her family's past as an assignment for her college course. She is a blood relative of the Hoot Owl Holler locals but was raised as a city girl by a stepfather who prohibited her from going to the mountains. She originally sees her relatives as backwoods clichés and is only interested in how they can help her. Eventually, she gets to know them and learns some things she didn't expect.

Ora Mae: She is Jennifer’s step-grandmother and is put off by the fact that she is being studied for a class assignment. She sees Jennifer as insincere and treats her like an outsider while also insinuating that she’s not ready for the things she’ll uncover.

Almarine Cantrell: One of the late relatives of the family stories, he inherited his father’s property in the late 1800s and became enamored with a local girl named Red Emmy. However, he eventually turns away from her and marries Pricey Jane. When his wife dies, he blames Emmy and murders her in a rage.

Red Emmy: She is the daughter of a local man who many believe sold his soul to the devil. As a result, she is feared to have Wiccan powers and is considered a sexual deviant. She has a cloudy past and becomes the object of Almarine’s affections for a short while, which some say is the result of a lust spell she cast on him. Almarine murders her.

Pricey Jane: She is a dark-haired beauty who marries Almarine once he breaks away from Emmy. However, like Emmy, she also has a mysterious past and eventually dies from ingesting dew poison.

Dory Cantrell: A blonde beauty who begins life as a respected and accepted member of the local community. However, she falls for an outsider named Richard Burlage and has two children with him. This association leads her to become classified as an outsider herself, an inescapable status that ultimately leads her to commit suicide.

Richard Burlage: He is a straitlaced school teacher who has a taboo relationship with Dory. He sees himself as superior to the locals and wants anything he can take easily. He views his trip to the town as a pilgrimage and ignores the harsh realities of mountain life in favor of romantic allusions. He eventually falls ill.

Luther Wade: He is a singer of mountain songs who loves and marries Dory. He has children with her and also raises the twins she had with Richard as his own.

Pearl Wade Bingham: One of the twin daughters Dory had with Richard, she is a wanderer just like her father. She desires a better life and leaves the mountains for a job as an art teacher. After marrying a successful upholsterer, she gives birth to Jennifer. But her restless spirit leads to her affair with a student, causing her to flee in disgrace. She ultimately dies from complications in giving birth to a baby that's likely the result of her affair.

Granny Younger: She is the vivid, vibrant narrator of Emmy’s story. She speaks with a mountain charm and is more than willing to be open with Jennifer about her family’s past.

Sally: This is Dory’s stepsister who tells Pearl’s story. She doesn’t speak in mountain idioms but still possesses a charm and pragmatic quality that makes her instantly likable and relatable.

Previous

Themes

Next

Analysis