cover image Fair and Tender Ladies

Fair and Tender Ladies

Lee Smith. Putnam Adult, $17.95 (316pp) ISBN 978-0-399-13382-4

Readers will be thoroughly captivated by Ivy Rowe, the narrator of this epistolary novel, and will come to the end of her story with a pang of regret. Smith ( Oral History , Family Linen ) has produced her best work here, creating a fully rounded heroine and other vivid characters who inhabit Virginia's Appalachia region. The letters begin around the turn of the century when Ivy is a child living with eight siblings on the family farm on Blue Star Mountain. Written with quaint misspellings and in the vernacular of Southern speech, the missives reflect the harsh poverty of farm life, as well as the simple beauties of the land: ``This is the taste of spring,'' her father tells Ivy, and she never forgets it, even when the family must move to the boom town of Majestic after her father's death. Ivy's talent as a budding writer is recognized early on, but just as she is about to realize her dream of going North to school, she is betrayed by her passionate nature. Though pregnant and ``ruint,'' she marries a childhood friend who takes her back to the family homestead, where she bears several children and endures the endless toil of a farmer's wife. Just when life seems drearily predictable, she succumbs in middle age to an irresistible passion that brings tragic consequences. Ivy is a woman of bewitching appeal and endearing faults: bright, with a poet's eye and soul; spunky, impetuous, sensual and proud. Following her heroine over seven decades, Smith conveys the changing conditions of life in Appalachia, during which time, as Ivy laments, ``everybody has took everything out of herefirst the trees, then the coal, then the children.'' In the old tradition of oral storytelling, Smith has fashioned a dramatic, magical, poignantly true-to-life tale. Literary Guild selection. (September)