Monday, August 1, 2011

Lee Smith's "Fair and Tender Ladies": Review Part 1

Upon first few pages of FTLadies, I wondered if this was going to be the typical coming of age "poor southern gal" novel.  Mountains, sickness, numerous children, slightly educated but uneducated main character, country-fied names, all those things that a generic novel about southern Appalachia encompasses.  I was like, ok, let me just put on my Dolly album "New Harvest" and tap my toes to a couple tunes for 45 minutes instead of reading a story I've already heard. However, it didn't take me long to realize how much more Smith has going on this novel.  I've been taking quick, mostly one-word notes and comments on an index card as I read and I keep coming back to words in the largest print on my index card:  "IVY ROWE".  Blame it on my Female Gothic professor Dr. May who had us spend a day dissecting what the title/name "Jane Eyre" meant (which, by the way, is a novel that is continually referenced in the book--also Yellow Wallpaper is less obviously hinted at throughout). Smith smartly picks this beautiful southern name that perfectly describes its owner and the world around her, wild and unruly but strong and sometimes over bearing, yet also purposeful, straight and structured.  It's the perfect description of what Ivy has to fight throughout her life, the call to be on the mountain, in nature, wild and on her own, or to be in town, in that perfect mill village life that is prescribed and new and shiny.  Ivy Rowe is a contradiction in her name and character.  Gardeners plant in rows and weed out encroaching ivy.  Ivy by its very nature cannot exist in a straight line, it must wind and twirl and hold onto something else.  I've only read the first couple sections of the book--all told in epistolary format.  As you read, as Ivy grows, (winds and twirls if you will) ages, learns, her phonetic spelling changes to "proper" English.  But I love how a couple words that she uses like "bury" and "seen" turn into natural words in Ivy's phonetically uneducated spelling.  Ivy spells these words as berried and seed.  Other examples of her phonetic spelling that struck me were "ribands" for ribbons, "direckly" instead of directly, "anser" instead of answer.  Funny, how all this kind of makes sense to me.... "et" instead of eat.  We love those superfluous letters, don't we?  I blame the French (via the English). 

To go back to the natural world of FTLadies, Ivy's best friend/ sister, Silvaney, is part of the crux of this conflict in Ivy of nature vs. civilization, wildness vs. structure.  Silvaney, who we do not know if she is crazy, mentally retarded, or autistic (which all 3 would be the same thing in the 1910s), thrives in nature, on the mountain. I believe, especially once she is sent off to a "home", Ivy's letters to her, her confidence in Silvaney, her wish to always be with her is a desire to get her childhood back.  Silvaney and Ivy are the same until they are about 10 and as Ivy grows up, Silvaney stays the same.  Ivy grows up into a world of structure and rules and consequences, whereas Silvaney never grows up.  I believe Silvaney represents not only a connection to nature, but represents Ivy as a child--I assume these connections are intertwined: childhood and nature, childhood and wildness.  Ivy even says in one of her letters, "Silvaney, it is like you are a part of me."  She confides to that that sometimes she believes Silvaney was made just for her. As children we thrive outdoors (at least I know I did), we are more animalistic than ever with seemingly only the desire to eat, sleep and play.  As adults we get complicated and convoluted with "human" ideas, civilized structures, rules and regulations of what is proper, what is right, what we are supposed to do.  Ivy reminds us, through Silvaney, that maybe there is something more human in this wild world of childhood, of being on the mountains and making angels in the snow and "berrying" your dead dad up on top of the mountain in a wooden box so that his body can become one with the earth.  And you can't forget, that as soon as Ivy and her family move down off the mountain to the town of Majestic, Virginia, World War 1 is looming.  Its back burner topic through the first part of this novel, but it is crucial to the story.  Ivy falls in love and eventually conceives with a boy who goes off to the war, and then dies in the war.  Her brother goes off to war, instead of staying at home on the farm; the war creates the need for increase coal mining which creates a boom economically as much as possible in a small Appalachian town.  War is this "human" and "civilized" idea, yet is the very essence of wildness and chaos.  Smith is very subtle, through a warm, typical, "poor southern gal" novel in creating a world with juxtapositions between mountain and valley, rural and suburb, childhood and adulthood, war and peace (what up Leo?), nature and civilization.  The over simplification that I sometimes find so obnoxious with much middle brow "southern" novels is non-existence in Fair and Tender or in the character of Ivy.  It is a simple story about one girl--but she is as complex as the south, as World War 1, as poverty, as the mountains and valleys in which she lives.  Ivy has me captured in her wild, structured world through her purposeful, thoughtful letters with their rambling, honest tone.

And gosh, y'all, I can't wait to read more.  I could fly through this novel, read it in a day maybe.  But I don't, I have savored it, swallowed it, and thought about it continually.  I hope if you read it, you will do the same.

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