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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Ivy Rowe, born in 1900, is a young girl growing up in the Appalacian mountains of Virginia, a middle child of a family with many children, both dead and alive. Though her life is characterized by hard work, poverty, and parental neglect, she possesses a sense of wonder and beauty that gives her joy despite her failure and disappointments. The book is collection of her letters written to the many people who intersect her life: pen pals, friends, parents, siblings, and children. Ivy is an open, perceptive, gentle, and unreserved soul, and her letters are a pleasure to read. Ivy’s distinctive voice and the detailed rendering of mountain life (and later, mining town conditions) are the strengths of this book. It is impressive how deftly the author plunges into the lives and circumstances of the characters, even with subtle details of plumbing, housework, and botany.

It was sad and a little disturbing to see Ivy, such a vigorous and sprightly girl, get caught up in the same errors and unhappy circumstances that she witnesses in her own mother’s life. She sees her mother ground down early by poverty, toil, grief, and too much childbearing. Her mother could not guide her children as she should have; first Beulah, Ivy’s sister, then Ivy herself become pregnant while unwed. Ivy gives up pursuit of an education because of her pregnancy; she foregoes books and learning, things she truly loves, because she cannot see the ultimate end of her course of action.

There is a paradoxical tendency in Ivy’s character to act according to her principles in some areas and be wholly dictated by other people (men, mostly) in others. Ivy’s strong feelings about family and heritage lead her to work hard for family unity and to keep her parent’s farm functioning. She values books and learning, so she exerts considerable willpower to continue to study; she loves her disabled sister, and so goes to great lengths to protect her from unfeeling strangers. Yet she never develops guiding principles with regard to her sexuality. Rather, she is strangely suggestible and tractable. In so many parts of her life, Ivy forms opinions and acts forcefully upon them, but maintains a blind spot for her sexual self. It is a contradictory flaw that unfortunately determines how her life unfolds.

Title:Fair and Tender Ladies
Author:Lee Smith
Date published:1988
Number of pages:316


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