Books Set in the South, Coming of age, Family dynamics, Fiction, Finding Your Self, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction, Social Commentary

#455 Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee SmithFair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

Somewhere in my media library I have two images of this book cover. Why? Well, I apparently didn’t rename the first one I got and it was probably named something like djhng8etyiewujgv,kdfjghref and I can’t search that in my search box because I don’t remember that it was named djhng8etyiewujgv,kdfjghref, so I had to get another one, surprisingly, spellchecker only thinks something is wrong with the letters after the comma.

This is the second time I’ve read this book. The first time was before I started One-elevenbooks when I lived in Okinawa. The library on Camp Courtney had a paperback exchange. You could go there and read other people’s paperback books that they didn’t want to ship back to the states when they’re allotted time in Okinawa was over. I don’t really know what drew me to this book in the first place, but I picked it up, read it, and liked it.

This entire book is told through letters, which is something I usually don’t like. The letters are from a woman named Ivy Rowe, well, she wasn’t always a woman. The story starts out with Ivy as a little girl, just after she has learned to write. Her language, grammar, and spelling are poor. She writes to a pen pal. She writes to a teacher. She writes to a friend. She tells everyone else about her life. Her family lives up in a cabin in the mountains of Virginia. She has lots of brothers and sisters. Some of them die. Some of them run off and never come back. Her father dies when she is fairly young.

Her mother moves her into town. While in town Ivy gets more education and grows up more. She gets a boyfriend. She finds that romance isn’t always what she has thought. Her mother dies. Her brothers go off into their own worlds. She moves in with her sister Beulah in a coal-mining town. She has a baby. Life is rough. She realizes coal mining towns aren’t the great things she thought they were. She gets married, she moves back into the family house. She and her husband start the hard life of farming in the mountains and raising children.

Ivy comes to a realization that something is off with her life. She doesn’t know what it is. A man named Honey Breeding shows up and Ivy figures out what that something is. She goes on living life, writing her letters. Some people are lost to her and other friends are acquired. Sometimes friends long-past show up years and years later. Ivy grows from being a foolish girl into a wise old woman who people consult with. She watches as the mountains change and she even protests mineral mining on her land with a shotgun. Ivy is truly a force to be reckoned with.

What I liked

I have a thing for the Appalachian mountains. I like books set in the mountains. The area of Virginia that Ivy is talking about in this book is still a bit of a depressed area. The mountains there are beautiful, of course, but there is very little else there. It’s true that some areas have expanded and electricity is there, but in some areas, mountain life hasn’t changed all that much from what Ivy describes. If you ever have the chance, take yourself a drive on the Blueridge Parkway, but get off of it for a while and drive around some of the back roads in southwestern Virginia. You will see little cabins that look just like the cabin on the cover of this book. You will see dogs running out in the yard and old pickup trucks parked in the driveway. There will be people hanging their clothes on the clothesline to dry because they don’t have a dryer. As far as setting, this book is still very true to life.

I like mountain women. I love the description of Granny Rowe. She gathers up all her plants in her basket and uses them for ailments and dispenses mountain sayings along with her treatments.

Throughout the book, Ivy’s writing style changes as she learns more. I have to commend Lee for doing this. I’m learning more about writing every day because I write everyday, but I don’t think I would be very good at trying to write as if I were still five years old. I don’t think I could mentally regress my writing style enough to be able to do something similar to what Lee has done with this book.

Ivy had a difficult life, but she persevered. Ivy’s life didn’t have to be quite as difficult as it ended up being. Ivy had opportunities to better herself and her situation, but she chose not to because she was so determined to stick with her mountain ways. I like that about Ivy and I don’t like that about Ivy.

What I didn’t like

I have a problem with letter books. I’m not getting the entire story. I don’t have full access. In most novels, the reader has access to everything as if it were some type of buffet. In letter books, you only get little snippets of the story and only from the perspective of the person writing the letter. As you know, when you’re writing a letter, you censor a lot of things out. In this book, Ivy is the only person writing letters, so we only get Ivy’s perspective. We don’t know anything of what Ivy’s pen pals say to her, unless Ivy specifically writes, “You said so-and-so to me the other day.” Ivy could be full of crap. She could be a big fat liar. We don’t know because we don’t have anyone else to check Ivy against. For all we know, Ivy is a man sitting in a tiny New York apartment smoking fancy cigarettes. We have no other character views to back up the identity of Ivy. We just have to take Ivy’s word for it.

Ivy is stubborn. We often say someone is stubborn as if it’s a bad thing; it’s not. Being stubborn can get you places in life. If you stick to something, you’re more likely to obtain something in return. Stubborn can also be a detriment to your life. Sometimes you have to move on, but you let stubbornness hold you back. This is how we’ve always done it; we can’t change now; we’re fifty. Ok, I get that you’re fifty, but in the grand scheme of things, fifty just isn’t that old. I’ve known three separate people who were 104 years old; fifty is nothing. You have to be willing to progress as a person in order to progress in life.

Ivy just sits up in her cabin and refuses to change. That’s nice Ivy. I commend you for sticking to your guns, literally, because Ivy at one point does actually have a shotgun, but sticking to your guns can often leave you behind. Ivy has a chance to leave her mountain and get an education; she doesn’t. Ivy has a chance to marry two separate men other than her husband; she doesn’t. Ivy has a chance to run away from her family; she doesn’t. Ivy has a chance to be fancy; she doesn’t take it. Not all of Ivy’s decisions are bad decisions. I do think the decision never to leave one little mountain area was not the best decision. Ivy knows so little of the world. It’s true that she is wise, but she’s only wise for her area. The same knowledge practiced in Boston or Las Angeles, just wouldn’t apply. Ivy is a giant fish in a small pond. In a bigger pond, Ivy is going to look like a little minnow.


Ivy reminds me of granny from The Beverly Hillbillies.

Appalachian mountains, books told through letters, coal mining, coal mining towns, fair and tender ladies, fair and tender ladies by lee smith, ivy, ivy rowe, lee smith, mining in the mountains, mountain life, mountains, story telling, sugar creek, writing letters
Books Set in the South, Coming of age, Family dynamics, Fiction, Finding Your Self, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction, Smith-Lee, Social Commentary


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