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The book Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is a well written narrative told from the perspective of one woman living in during the turn of the century in rural backwood Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains, and chronicles her life and observations about the people in her life, the events that happen during the course of the book, and her own relationships with other women in her life. The book spans the course of Ivy Rowe’s life as she weaves the story of her life, written as letters to various people that she knows and communicates with.
It is the narrative form that the writer uses in writing this book, as well as the characters’ voice and story, that make it such an outstanding example of writing and a fine example of a woman writer’s success at creating a beloved female character that is realistic, beautiful, raw, and completely open about her thoughts, feelings, and observations of the way life is around her and her own participation in it.
It is a story that draws a person in as much as it makes them question why the author used this method to tell her story, a book that is as much a study of bygone days and a lost way of life as it is a novel about the inner emotions and feelings of a woman, spanning from her days as a young girl to a young woman to a wife and mother, and all of the beautiful moments, and the sorrowful ones, that come with all those changes.
The title Fair and Tender Ladies is an interesting choice for this particular book because it does not stress enough the strength and raw grit that these women had to have in order to make it through their lives.
The way of life in the Appalachian Mountains at the turn of the last century was harsh, to say the least, and women like Ivy Rowe were not allowed all of the luxuries and opportunities that women are today. For example, as it begins it becomes apparent that Ivy had gone to school some but her attendance was very little, she does learn how to read and write enough to become an avid writer of letters to everyone near and dear to her about all of the small and large moments that make up her life.
It is through these letters that the writer chooses to tell Ivy’s story instead of in the traditional first or third person narrative that most books are written using. Instead of ‘prettying up’ the language, Smith writes these letters using the colloquial language of backwoods Virginians in the early 1900’s, with common misspellings and all so that the voice, and personality, and even flaws, of Ivy leap out at you from the pages of the book.
The reader feels as if they are truly understanding this woman and getting to know her because they are reading her words, as she wrote them, and feeling the immediate fear of something that happened just that day, such as the mine collapse that helps her make her decision to marry Oakley, the deaths of Lonnie and Silvaney, and then the death of her husband Oakley, as well as the joy of recent events, like those that happen with her children, her affair that had her run away from her marriage and her faith in God and salvation.
She describes all of the women in her life, and her connections with them, in more details than the men, especially her sisters, friends, and daughters, but she writes about love as well, everything from her own relationship with her husband to dreams of adolescent romance and her memories of those emotions she had back then, such as lust. She even writes about her excitement when the birth control pill is invented.
All in all, Smith writes a woman’s life spanning from girlhood to adolescence to womanhood, and all of the years that encompasses and all of the various changes that happen in a woman’s life during that time, and she does so in a completely genuine and believable voice. A question that arose while I was reading Fair and Tender Ladies, however, was whether the author was intentionally writing the novel in the form of narrative that she used because she was trying to make a broader statement about the culture and people of backwoods Virginia and their traditions, one of the most important and vibrant of those traditions being oral history.
Since many people in these Appalachian communities could not read or write because of the remoteness of their homes and because of the lack of public schooling in many hard to reach areas, it is only fitting that the author would use this form of narrative because it most closely resembles the oral tradition of the people that Ivy Rowe live with and grew up around, a very integral part of the culture that she exists within. The question of whether this was intentional or not, and how it affects the way the reader understands the main character’s story, is something that could be more closely developed and understood.
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