“Oh, I was young then, and I walked in my body like a Queen.” –Fair and Tender Ladies, Lee Smith
Just finished reading this for my Women in Southern Literature class and I fell in love with it almost at once. Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith follows the story of Ivy Rowe, who is a 13 year old girl living in the Appalachian Mountains during World War I at the beginning of the novel. The first hundred pages of the book are somewhat difficult to read, as Smith writes the way Ivy would talk phonetically. However, as Ivy gets older, the language smooths out and becomes more readable. Another interesting aspect is that the novel is written completely in letters from Ivy to various people in her life: pen pals, teachers, siblings, and lovers.
Ivy Rowe is probably one of my favorite literary characters of all time. As a young woman, she is not content to be a housewife and mother. She wants to go away and be a writer and have romantic escapades. However, one of these escapades leaves her an unwed teenage mother and the father of her child is killed in France during the war. And so, Ivy becomes a “ruint” girl and insists that she is no lady. Ivy’s parents die towards the beginning of the book, so she and her baby daughter move in with one of Ivy’s older sisters and her family. Beulah, Ivy’s sister, is viewed as a lady by the community. Her husband has a good job and she is the perfect wife and mother. But she gets herself so worked up trying to be such a perfect lady that she ends up making herself sick half the time. As a result, Ivy decides that she is better off as a “ruint” girl.
Ivy has a few trysts here and there, but she ends up marrying one of the boys she knew as a child, Oakley Fox. And Oakley is a really sweet guy, don’t get me wrong. But it’s super douchey how he never stops talking about church and how he wishes Ivy would go to church. (Ivy doesn’t want to be saved and she hates going to church.) They’re married for many years and have a boat load of kids together. And while it seems Ivy finally has it all, she is actually miserable. She never wanted to be tied down as a housewife and mother and she feels trapped. So naturally, she has an affair with a travelling beekeeper named Honey Breeding. But then he leaves her and she feels bad so she goes home to Oakley, who is a little salty about the situation but he takes her back anyway. (Also one of the kids died when Ivy was away and I feel like Oakley was a very good sport about it even though he probably could have afforded to be a little saltier.)
The last hundred pages or so go by very quickly. Ivy and Oakley reach old age, Oakley dies, and Ivy is old and alone and watches her grandchildren grow. The novel concludes in the 70s, and Ivy’s letters stop being very coherent, which I take as a sign that she is getting old and potentially dies at the end, though it is unclear.
I strongly recommend this book. It doesn’t seem to be a very well known work because I had a pain finding a quote to put at the top.