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Friday, March 24, 2006

Lee Smith

Lee Smith. The name for me evokes memories of long days spent happily lost in books that speak to the minds and hearts of mountain girls everywhere. Oral History, Family Linen, Black Mountain Breakdown, The Devil's Dream, Saving Grace, and my particular favorite, Fair and Tender Ladies. I know so many of the women in these books, and I have been one or two of them. Thought provoking, funny, tender, haunting; each book has a meaning far beyond the story. The richness of detail about mountain life, the deep understanding of the people and their ways and thoughts, and above all the portrayal of the changes that the modern world has inflicted on a proud people are woven into the stories.

The Friends of the Library in Floyd, with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, is hosting a wonderful series of author talks entitled "Celebrate the Past/Look to the Future". Lee Smith was the speaker at last night's gathering at the Presbyterian Church in Floyd, Virginia. Surrounded by wooden paneled walls, purple carpet and stained glass, Lee Smith was as charming and funny as her books. Haunting as well, as she spoke of personal experience and personal loss, inspiration for the writer from Grundy who grew up surrounded by story. Mountain people love story, playing with words and evoking emotion with family tales, complicated jokes and the richness of memory. Lee Smith's writings capture this love.

She spoke most about her more recent book, The Last Girls, another favorite of mine. I didn't realize that part of the plot was based on a trip she took in college down the Mississippi on a raft. Smith's description of this trip and the girls she traveled with rocked the large audience with laughter. Readings from the book describing the characters, accented in a true mountain voice, were both hilarious and touching. The charm of the writer echoed the charm of her books; she was funny, tender, thought-provoking and haunting, just like her written words.

She also talked about Fair and Tender Ladies, a novel written during a time of personal crisis for her. I think for a true writer the characters often take over the book, and Smith talked of Ivy Rowe, the main character in Fair and Tender Ladies, as if she were a friend. Ivy Rowe is the one character in all of her books that I can call to mind as a complete person. She is plucky and sensuous, proud and loving. Some of the reason may be that I saw an actress portray the character several years ago at the Reynolds Homestead here in Patrick County. After the program the director introduced favorite cousin and me to the actress. Mary startled me by describing me as sensuous. A bit of self-realization there, thanks to Lee Smith.

I looked around the audience as Lee Smith spoke. Floyd County is a unique blending of cultures. Women with deep roots that span generations in these mountains sat with women of different backgrounds, drawn to Floyd by the beauty of the countryside and feeling of community. Every face has a story, all unique, but all about the experience of being women in changing times. Lee Smith has captured these stories in the pages of her novels, speaking with tender understanding of the mountain people that are so often misrepresented and ridiculed. Speaking with pride in an accent that is fast becoming rare because of outside influences, these novels, as fiction, reveal more than truth about a disappearing time and generation.

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  • At Friday, 24 March, 2006, Blogger D L Ennis said…

    Wow Leslie, sounds like it was an amazing event; wish I could have been there! I know a little about Lee Smith but have never read any of her books; I will now. Great post!

  • At Friday, 24 March, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It broke my heard that I couldn't come out there for this event. I love Lee Smith. Fortunately, I did see her speak years ago in Martinsville.


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