I've spent the last few days lost in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, courtesy of Fair and Tender Ladies .
Ivy Rowe, the book's protagonist, is anything but fair and tender. She is the product of a hardscrabble, Appalachian upbringing, tucked tight into the folds of the mountains she loves.
Ivy, born around 1900, is tough and scrappy, smart and independent, and see things for what they are and what they are not. One of eight children, her family struggles to survive and keep the farm going as her father lies dying. The hard times get harder, as death stalks the family and her plans to further her education are thwarted.
Eventually Ivy finds some good times riding the coal mining boom in Southwest Virginia before returning to Sugar Creek and the family land.
Ivy's story is told through the letters she writes to people she loves. We first become acquainted with her when she is about 11 years old, her writing rife with misspelling and Appalachian colloquialisms. She is a keen observer, a passionate nature lover, and a quick student of life and learning. We watch Ivy grow up, make mistakes, mature, and then age.
Lee Smith has created a voice and a fully formed, complex character that is hard to let go of. She recreates the life and traditions of mountain people with love and respect.
I grew up in the mountains of Western Virginia, a generation after Ivy's in an area that is not even close to as remote as her home place. Still, I recognized the mountain dialect captured in Fair and Tender Ladies and I have seen traces of some of the customs buried in its pages. It is not my history, but the long ago history of some of my childhood friends and their parents.
Yet, that is only part of the reason I loved this book so much. The big reason is that Ivy Rowe herself--an old timey storyteller, a woman with a big heart and a lust for life and one who would not "be beholden to anybody." She lived on her own terms, growing wiser, feistier, and more outspoken with the years. God willing, I hope to do the same. : )