Fair and Tender Ladies

Lee Smith drops an astute warning at the start of her enthralling Oral History. And though its directed at the ladies, anyone aiming to “court” young men should listen up.

Come all you fair and tender ladies
Be careful how you court young men.
They're like a star in a summer's morning,
First appear and they're gone.

That sets the tone for a story “that’s truer than true, and nothing so true is so pretty. It’s blood on the moon.” Yikes! I’m not sure fair and tender ladies and gentlemen are ready for this.

Jennifer is a college student who was raised by her father. She hardly remembers her mother. She’s working on a project for her Oral History class, and her professor (who clearly has taken some non-academic interest in her) has encouraged her to interview her mother’s family. She may learn something about herself in the process. Cool.

But is it? Jennifer’s mother was a Cantrell, and she grew up in Appalachia. Geez, Gladiola, that’s a huge territory in the eastern United States. Could you be more specific? OK, fine. The Cantrells have lived for generations in the most remote part of southwestern Virginia – the pointy nose part that sticks into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Not everyone is glad Jennifer has shown up. Her grandmother in particular is frosty. Wow. Grandma doesn’t sound like a fair and tender lady. She’s not. Perhaps it’s because she has spent most of her life in the shadows of Hoot Owl Mountain. It might be the “prettiest holler on God’s green earth” but there’s something about it that makes a “body lose heart.” Maybe it’s because that witch cursed it.

And let’s not forget. Jennifer may be family, but she’s also a “foreigner” – a term that “does not necessarily refer to someone from another country or even from another state, but simply to anybody who was not born” in that area of the county.

In Oral History Lee Smith tells a rollicking tale of four generations of Cantrells. It’s full of music, moonshine, laughter, tragedy, desperation, ghosts, and violence. There is poverty, hard times, and true grit. It’s also honest and loving. Appalachia has been stereotyped and ridiculed ever since foreigners have been telling its stories. Smith doesn’t do that. She knows the region well and has affection for it, but she does not gloss over its tortured history. Her characters are flawed and sometimes wicked, but they’re human.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

We are All Guests on Earth

Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth purports to be about that most Gatsbyesque of couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that’s only a superficial reading, because the novel is narrated by Evalina Toussaint, who early on asks and answers the most essential question in story telling. “Is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?” That’s undeniable. And in Guests on Earth, it’s fortunate because Evalina is a delight.

The book opens with a newspaper clipping about a fire in 1948 that destroyed Highland Hospital, a mental clinic in Asheville, North Carolina. Then the story jumps back to the 1930s in New Orleans where the reader is introduced to Evalina when she was a young girl. But, still, the reader knows that inferno awaits.

Evalina’s mother is larger than life with a string of lovers that seem to support her until each relationship ends. When her mother commits suicide, the last of these lovers, Mr. Graves, rashly takes Evalina home with him – begging her to forgive him as he says God has forgiven him. But instead, Evalina just loses all respect for God. Like we said, she’s a delight.

No one is happy that Mr. Graves has brought Evalina home. Not Evalina. And certainly not Mrs. Graves and her children. Sensing that the house is a grave (it is Mr. Graves’ house, after all), Evalina stops eating. Soon she is shipped to Highland Hospital. The year is 1936, and Evalina is 13. She spends much of the next 12 years at the hospital inching towards that fire.

Evalina meets Zelda Fitzgerald, another patient, who early on advises her that it is “far better to be dead than a princess in a tower.” That’s bitter medicine, but we gather Zelda knows what she’s talking about. At times Zelda is kind and generous. At other times, she is remote and cruel. At one point Zelda grabs a salamander from a child’s hand and throws it into a fire (there’s that motif, again) – much to the horror of the surrounding children. But Zelda claims she did not harm the salamander, because salamanders live in fire. She tells the children that she, also, is a salamander. Time will tell.

The hospital provides Evalina with a window on the world – where life is a kaleidoscope forcing her to continually adjust to new patterns. She also witnesses and at times experiences love’s many variations. She comes to understand that love, like life, is impossible to predict. It is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a lover enters the forest with one person but come out with someone else.

Guests on Earth has much to say about the harsh treatment of girls and women, who either can’t or won’t conform to societal norms, during the 1930s and 1940s. This is the book’s great strength. Surprisingly, it has little to say about the rabid racial discrimination throughout society. This is the book’s weakness, and it is rather glaring.

Ms. Smith’s research is meticulous. And though the book is fiction, we believe she has captured the true character of the people who actually lived – especially Zelda and Scott. The title comes from a letter Scott wrote to his daughter, in which he states the “insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” For once, Fitzgerald’s imagination fails him, because it isn’t just the “insane” who are mere guests on earth.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor