Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (G. P. Putnam’s Sons: $17.95; 336 pages.)
Young Ivy Rowe is one of nine children around the turn of this century born of dirt-poor but decent folk up in a Virginia “holler.” Her father, a farmer, is dying by the time she gets to be 8; her mother, “of good family,” has given up everything to live an existence of incredible physical deprivation and intense mythical riches.
Linguists have often said that the rural poor in the Appalachian Mountains speak a language closer to Shakespeare’s than any other English on Earth, and the author here, as first she conjures up Ivy’s voice and writing style, surely has this in mind. . . .
Ivy Rowe is a kid, young, obscure, but a born artist. She’s what Virginia Woolf spoke of when she reminded her readers of “Shakespeare’s sister,” or what Gertrude Stein was perhaps getting at when she wrote “Three Lives,” reminding us that all those lives are/were women’s lives. Ivy, the kid, is a born writer. She’s also cursed/blessed by her social class, her gender, her geographical location. She hasn’t a chance in hell when it comes to the real world, and yet, up in her “holler,” she lives in a beneficent heaven.
Salutes a Beautiful Spot
“Fair and Tender Ladies” is one of several new novels about the South that seem written less to enhance the author’s reputation than simply to salute what it means to come from a place so beautiful, so poor, so isolated. That the novel itself is a tour de force seems, at some level, just a happy accident: then you look again, just at the language, and, if you had a hat on, you’d have to take it off to Lee Smith.
What Smith has done is this: created a character both gifted and unlearned and taken her through a life for over 60 years. This is an epistolary novel (that is, written by Ivy’s letters alone), and she writes determinedly, beautifully, first to make a connection with the outside world.
She writes to a “pen pal” in the Netherlands, who never writes back; to a young, girlish schoolteacher whom she has a crush on and, then, when her favorite sister, Silvaney (Ivy’s other half, her heart, her “hart”), is confined in an institution, she writes to Silvaney--even after her sister dies.
This novel does dazzling things. It follows Ivy from the time she’s a literature-struck hillbilly who can quote the metaphysical poets, through life until she becomes a stubborn mountain woman who reads Leon Uris and can say to her youngest daughter, “Those birth control pills are great. They are the greatest thing since polyester. " )
A Miner’s Wife
The novel also takes a look at what was/is “out there” for women, in the mountains, in the South, in lots of places. Ivy lives in lumber country, and she longs to go with the boys in the spring, taking the logs downriver. She can’t do it, so she goes to bed with a nice boy named Lonnie Rash and is “ruint.”
She longs to work, but ends up with a job in a soda fountain (in a mining town so well researched it blackens your bronchial tubes just to read about it). Ivy knows it’s death to go down in the mines, but finds a miner for a husband. Ivy sees how children took the life out of her well-born mother, but ends up with a passel of her own.
With all that, Ivy is allowed her one great emotional adventure. Even more, because of her letters and her intelligence, she begins to come to terms with what she is: a mountain woman who knows and loves and respects the land she was born on.
As a child she’s lost brothers and sisters--to shootings, insanity and tumors (one poor little brother of hers “walks slaunchwise”). As a mother, Ivy loses her children to appendicitis, politics and far more sadly, “good” educations.
Her children pass her by, leaving her with only her shotgun, cabin and memories. So, besides the character study here, we see one person’s world widen: relatives who go to Europe in World War I, the Pacific in World War II, Korea and then Vietnam. Ivy turns into a woman who listens, in her late middle age, to Elvis Presley singing “Heartbreak Hotel.”
I loved this book! Not because of the “mushy love stuff” or even the material on “women’s lot,” but because of the great old Southern stories and the way Ivy’s letters go from late Middle English to Modern English and back again as she gets older.
“Fair and Tender Ladies” has been written with so much love and respect for history and the language and the brave people who endure so much in those mountains that intelligence triumphs absolutely over any possible sentimentality. I’d buy this one.