Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479
In her novel Oral History, Lee Smith places one character in the role of uninformed, sometimes oblivious inquirer into a complex world, making this a device for getting the stories of the other characters. The role that Jennifer plays is that of a college student with an assignment to carry out an oral history. Returning to her roots, now that her part of the Cantrell family no longer lives in rural Virginia, Jennifer is unfamiliar with the people, their culture, and the terrain. Aiming not just to get their stories but also to reaffirm familial relationships, she struggles to turn her bewilderment into comprehension. As might be anticipated, not all the stories are pleasant, and Jennifer has to cope with some ancestral ghosts.
One theme of the novel is the tension between intellect and emotion, as Jennifer’s academic motivations leave some family members unimpressed. Related to this are the tensions between other extremes—urban and rural, educated and unlettered, and ultimately, the paradox of oral history: traditional spoken narratives versus written records. Throughout the novel, however, Smith knocks down these dichotomies as much as she props them up. The intertwined relationship between oral and traditional history connects more generally with the theme of the role of the present in shaping perceptions of the past.
Another important key theme, connected closely to time, is the importance of place. Smith said about this book,
I tried to show the changes—the way the land changed, from the way it was when chestnuts grew wild and when panthers roamed, until the way it was when the outside lumbering interests came in and then the coal and strip mining.
The book is very deliberately set in one area, the mountains and “hollers” of southwest Virginia, and Smith shows myriad changes. Because the Cantrells and their neighbors live from the land, nature has them in her grip. The supernatural—the source of some of the women’s powers, which may be witchcraft—draws its strength from the mountain landscapes. Smith said, as “people changed from almost a mythical existence in remote hollers, . . . I [also] wanted to show what happened to the language.”
But perhaps most of all, the importance of family, for better or worse, is the overarching theme. As Jennifer’s goals were not all clear to her, the reader cannot always tell if she accomplished them. Whether her growing sense of closeness to some family members will remain with her, for example, is left undecided. For other characters as well, such as the seemingly ageless Granny Younger, Jennifer’s presence stirs up memories and makes them confront familial emotions they had cast aside. Smith shows that the impact of losses, such as Emmy’s baby, is often a ripple effect reaching far beyond those most immediately concerned.
McKnight, Tom. (1988). An interview with Lee Smith. Appalachian Heritage 16 (2 & 3): 57-60. From Project Muse.