Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Appalachian Attitudes toward Female Sexual Transgression in Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies

I fell in love with Lee Smith last year when I got my hands on a used copy of her 1988 Fair and Tender Ladies, a fictional depiction of an Appalachian woman named Ivy Rowe, related by letters that Ivy penned throughout her exceptional—and yet not-so-exceptional—lifetime, from around the turn of the twentieth century to the 1980s. This thoroughly engrossing epistolary novel inspired me to attempt to learn more about my own Appalachian roots and, in particular, my beloved—although now deceased—paternal grandmother. My grandmother and step-grandfather left the hills of Kentucky in the early 60s with three children—one of them my father—in tow and another to be born soon after they settled in Indiana. The details of their story have always been a bit murky, although I know that these include a seemingly hasty flight from Grandma’s first husband. At this point, I’m trying to plan a trip to visit Grandma’s sisters, who still reside in Kentucky, for later this summer. I’m going with my dad, whom I think yearns for more information about Grandma as much as I do. Fair and Tender Ladies raises important questions for me regarding my own search for information about my female Appalachian ancestors. What I find most interesting is that this story centers on a woman who breaches a boundary of sexual propriety but, following her period of transgression, is able to return to the very center of her family’s life and even incorporate her conventionally out-of-bounds sexual experiences into her existence as a mother. Instead of the fallen woman who is set out to die after exhibiting the least sign of pre- or extramarital sexuality, in Smith’s novel I find a woman who occupies an important place in her family despite, and maybe because of, her unwillingness to maintain decorum in terms of a conventional sense of female sexuality. In this way, this story resonates with some of the information that I’ve gathered over the years about my own grandmother, an Appalachian woman who ran away with a man who was not her husband but overcame this crisis and remained until her death as a nurturing presence at the core of our family.

In Fair and Tender Ladies, Ivy engages in a couple of sexual relationships as a single young woman in the first decade of the 1900s, one of which results in the birth of a daughter whom she names Joli, meaning “joy.” Although she feels “ruint” when she discovers the pregnancy (119), Ivy does go on to experience much joy in bearing and raising her daughter and eventually accepts a proposal of marriage from her gentle childhood sweetheart Oakley Fox. Ivy is happy with Oakley for quite a while, but after birthing six children besides her first daughter and burying two of them, she retreats into a deep depression. What seems to bring Ivy back to her spunky self is a brief affair with the man who sets up Oakley’s bee hives, a man whose name, Honey Breeding, signifies both his profession and the sweetness and nurturance that he is able to offer Ivy. Ivy literally just walks away from her children and her home one day and follows Honey into a cave in the mountains (a significant location, as several critics have pointed out, in that it symbolizes both Ivy’s reconnection with nature and a renewal of her feminine power). There she stays with the bee man until she is “skinny as a rail” and sick from a diet of mountain berries (236). When Ivy returns to her home, her young daughter LuIda has died, and, despite her insistence that she had no choice but to retreat into the mountains with Honey, Ivy feels as though LuIda’s death is a just punishment for her leaving her husband and children. Although Oakley is deeply saddened by Ivy’s betrayal, he protects her from the violent wrath of her self-righteous minister brother and urges Ivy to return to her place in the family. After allowing her time to grieve LuIda’s death, he states matter-of-factually, “Get up, Ivy, and take care of your children” (240).

In this way, Ivy’s affair with Honey Breeding is portrayed as both a time of necessary rejuvenation for Ivy that gives her the strength to carry on as an extremely hardworking and devoted mother and wife and a transgression that needs forgiveness and, even with forgiveness, carries severe consequences. The affair is also something that is eventually incorporated into the family’s existence, as demonstrated in not only a general way by Oakley’s forgiveness of Ivy and his new attentiveness to her emotional and psychological needs but also a specific scene in which Oakley and the children engage in some of the same games that Ivy played with the bee man on the mountain top and Ivy comments while eating a biscuit, in a thinly veiled reference to Honey’s effect on their life, “This is the best honey yet” (249). Oakley eventually does offer Ivy complete forgiveness, and they go on to live a full life together, Ivy remaining a central figure of nurturance and life in her family.

Numerous critics have discussed the relationship between Ivy’s sexuality and her ability as a writer. Before leaving with Honey Breeding, Ivy goes through a period in which she writes very few letters, and her sexual experiences with the bee man seem to rejuvenate her gift of written artistry. Also, on the mountain top, Ivy reclaims the beauty of her naked body as she engages in play with Honey in the nude, and, at the same time, she re-connects with storytelling, as she begs Honey to tell her the tales of his travels. As Debbie Wesley says, then, “Ivy does not allow her creative spirit to become stifled completely. [Instead] Ivy escapes with Honey to reunite with that part of herself” (8-9). Other critics have well-documented the connection between Ivy’s sense of her sexuality and motherhood. Linda Byrd points out, for instance, that Ivy relates the sensation of nursing Joli to that of sexual desire (141). I, however, am less interested in how Ivy’s sexuality impacts either her creativity or her ability to mother her children and more interested in the related issue of how Ivy is restored to the bosom of her family despite her perceived sexual deviances.

Certainly, Ivy’s relationship with Honey can be read as purely metaphorical, but I would argue—although I won’t in my limited space here—that there are characters in other Smith novels who similarly violate the constraints of conventional female sexual behavior and whose transgressions are similarly incorporated into their family life. Is this recurring characterization of women simply a product of Lee Smith’s belief in creativity and sexuality as intricately linked, or is it indicative of how women lived and were treated in traditional Appalachian culture? As Ivy herself points out, her family depends on her labor for its survival; perhaps Oakley accepts Ivy back into the family home simply because he cannot imagine a way of managing the children and house by himself. Another possible explanation may have to do with the seeming linkage between sexuality and the charismatic religions of Appalachia, another theme that Smith explores in her body of work.

I’d like to continue reading other Appalachian authors in search of this theme that depicts this seeming allowance for female sexual transgression and then acceptance back into the family. I’m also planning to do a bit of historical research on women in Appalachia. Perhaps most of all, I’m hoping to uncover some “truth” about Appalachian women—and especially my Grandma—in my upcoming visit to my relatives in Kentucky. How excited I’d be to be handed a box of letters written from my Grandma in Indiana to her sisters still in Kentucky and find her as compelling of a writer as Ivy Rowe! This seems unlikely, however, given what I know of Grandma’s limited educational background. Also, I’m acutely aware that my outsider status may prevent my great-aunts from sharing with me the personal details of Grandma’s life. After all, in the novel, even Ivy burns her letters rather than share them with Joli, who, just like I have, goes on to earn her PhD in English. As my fellow blogger Gentle Reader points out, “You get the sense that Joli is enamored of the mountain life partly because she is not of it any more—because she’s not of it, she sees it with anthropological interest. She can research it, but she can’t know it like her mother does” (par. 13). I fear that, like Joli, as much as I read about and research Appalachian life, I may have to content myself with only knowing the partial details of my female ancestors’ stories.

Bibliographic Notes: Critics who discuss the location of Ivy’s retreat with Honey Breeding include Donna Ogle and Tammy Horn. Besides Wesley, Nancy Warner Barrineau offers a compelling reading of Ivy’s development as an artist as related to her reclamation of her body and sexuality, and Harriette C. Buchanan discusses Ivy’s sense of herself as both a maternal and sexual being. Linda Byrd Cook broaches all of these topics with Lee Smith herself in her most recent interview with the author.

Works Cited

Barrineau, Nancy Warner. “Self-Actualization and the Power of the Word in Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies.” The Pembroke Magazine 33 (2001): 58-64.

Buchanan, Harriette C. “Lee Smith, the Mother Tongue, and Contemporary North Carolina Fiction.” Postscript 11 (1994): 29-34.

Byrd, Linda. “The Emergence of the Sacred Sexual Mother in Lee Smith’s Oral History.” Southern Literary Journal 31 (1998): 119-42.

Cook, Linda Byrd. “A Spiritual Journey: An Interview with Lee Smith.” The Southern Quarterly 47.1 (2009): 74-103.

Gentle Reader. “Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith—A Review.” [Weblog Entry.] Shelf Life. 26 June 2007. (http://shelflifeblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/fair-and-tender-ladies-by-lee-smith.html). 19 June 2010.

Horn, Tammy. “Honey Breeding: An Appalachian Aristaeus in Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies.” The Journal of Kentucky Studies 18 (2001): 106-110.

Ogle, Donna. “’A Mountain to Rest My Eyes Against’: Place of Origin in Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies.” The Journal of Kentucky Studies 22 (2005): 104-109.

Smith, Lee. Fair and Tender Ladies. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.

Wesley, Debbie. “A New Way of Looking at an Old Story: Lee Smith’s Portrait of Female Creativity.” Southern Literary Journal 30 (1997): 88-101.


  1. Andrea, have you read or seen "The Doll Maker"? The whole time I was reading your post, I kept thinking of that. Perhaps I'm adding some lowbrow to the mix here, but it seems somehow to fit.

    Okay, confession: I've only seen the movie, which features Jane Fonda in the title role (and she does a fantastic job, IMHO). I also read the forward to the book by Joyce Carol Oates, and it seems to be a book well worth reading--one of many I am going to get back to someday! Really! :-)

    The movie though is fantastically done and well worth exploring in its own right. The main character is also an Appalachian woman, a nurturer and talented artist . . . who is NOT transgressive, who follows her husband's lead, with utterly disastrous results (translation: I highly recommend the story, but be warned--it will rip your heart out). An amazing movie I saw years ago and have never forgotten, and an interesting contrast to the portrayal of Ivy as you describe it above.

    The other Appalachian story that comes to mind is a book I LOVED as a teenager, Christy. (Cheesy short-lived TV series based on it to be utterly ignored). It's a big hit in Christian circles, with good reason, but I remember it as one of my favorite adolescent stories and also simply a great love story. The "transgressive" female character in that book pays an enormous price but is also an admirable, strong woman. I wonder how I'd feel now if I went back and read the book again, but I recall it as well worth the read.

    Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking discussion!

  2. I will add these two texts to my "to do" list. Thanks so much for the suggestions, Dani!

  3. What about _Bastard out of Carolina_, for a little more Appalachian flavor? I enjoyed it.

  4. Nice read. I stumbled on your blog as I was looking up some things on this book. It very interesting to see the fact that Ivy returned to her previous role without artificial consequences. Were the natural consequences too big to add to? Or, as you said, was Ivy's role as labor too big to lose?

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