It's no accident that I chose Fair and Tender Ladies as my example -- it is not only my favorite of Smith's novels, but one of my favorite books of all books. In fact, if I had to choose a list of books to take with me to a deserted island, it would most likely be towards the top. I've heard criticisms of the novel, but in all fairness, they should simply be discarded. When it comes to Smith's writing, critics may not get it -- especially if they're from the north rather than the south. One of her most amazing talents is her ear for the vernacular, for the accent and cadence of speech in the common man (or woman, as the case may be). Her main character in Fair and Tender Ladies is Ivy Rowe, and the form the novel takes is an epistolary novel written entirely in letters from Ivy to loved ones -- her parents, siblings, a pen pal, her teacher. It is grammatically incorrect and full of typos -- just as the little-educated Ivy would have actually written (you know -- were she actually a living person rather than a fictional character).
Some lines from Fair and Tender Ladies:
"I take an interest in Love because I want to be in Love one day and write poems about it, do you? But I do not want to have a lot of babys thogh. . . . So it is hard to think what to do. My momma was young and so pretty when she come riding up Sugar Fork, but she does not look pretty now, she looks awful, like her face is hanted, she has had too much on her. Too much to contend with she says" (15).
"I love it when it rains, it is like a hundred million horses running on top of my head, it is like the Charge of the Ligt Brigade on this old tin roof. . . . I love my room. . . . I can go to the winder and push back my gauzy curtin and look out over all the town. It is mine, I say to myself then" (88).
"Momma took one step closer. She looked real little. Ivy, you listen to me, she said. I am your mother. But she looked more like the ghost of our mother. And the way she looked put me in mind of how she used to look up on Sugar Fork, how she went up on Pilgrim Knob and stood out in the snow and said, I am a fool for love" (123).
"I remember Daddy saying, Farming is pretty work. And when Oakley kisses me, it seems like I can hear Daddy saying, Slow down, slow down now, Ivy. This is the taste of spring" (177).
If that doesn't make you want to rush out and find a copy of Fair and Tender Ladies -- or anything by Lee Smith -- I don't know what will.
Smith has just published a collection of new and selected stories titled Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger. I'm a little more than halfway through it (in only a day or two of reading), so I'm sure you can guess that a review will be soon forthcoming. This collection of stories is every bit as fabulous as everything else she has done.
One of my favorite bookish memories is of traveling to Oxford's Conference for the Book in 2004 to hear Lee Smith read while Karren Pell and the Reckon Crew performed various songs inspired by Fair and Tender Ladies. I bought the CD of their songs, which I later played until I knew them by heart. Whatever the format, Smith is sure to be an excellent addition to the Southern Festival of Books events this year.