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