Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is my favorite mountain novel. I first read this novel in college when I was about 20 years old. The protagonist, Ivy, was like a heavy pebble dropped in my soul, one that resonated with me. I'm from Claiborne County in east TN and grew up with many wonderful women. There is strength, sadness, and dignity wrapped into one in each of these women. Ivy embodied this is in a way that made realize the archetype of the simple and “uneducated” mountain woman. I do believe that the memories of our ancestors, both recent and long ago, are stored in our cells. Although I was only 20 years old, I held the grief of losing babies, slaughtering hogs, and chopping tobacco in my DNA.
My favorite scene from Fair and Tender Ladies is when Ivy sits on the porch of her home high on the mountain. She looks down to her community below that just received electricity. She sees all the homes alight for the first time. I imagine many times she has looked below her and seen only the blackness of oak and maple in the night. That night, however, she looked down and was reminded that there were people there. There were families there. Even now as I think on that scene, I feel something bittersweet. There is a comfort in knowing you are not alone, yet a heavy sadness in watching the changing of time. There are changes that come and we either accept them peaceably or we struggle and create pain for ourselves. In that moment I believe Ivy was able to hold the immense experiences of her life, all the pains and joys, and own them. Without judgment she accepted lovingly the course of her life. Every light inside Ivy was on, and she was okay with that. This was a woman who had known suffering and ecstasy and was able to regard them all as hers in that moment. Even at 20 years old, being the daughter of mountain women, I could feel that and know it at a deeper level today.
There are so many great mountain novels, but also at the top of the list would be Gap Creek by Robert Morgan. In both of these novels, it's the female protagonist that reaches me. In Gap Creek, it's Julie Harmon. Julie is tough, strong, and stoic. She does what needs to be done, forges ahead, and keeps her mouth shut. So many times throughout the course of this novel, I vary between wanting to comfort this poor child and desiring to shake her silly. But Julie, too, is an archetype that resonates in me. She is the mountain woman that quietly endures pain at the expense of her very self. She does the work of a man, all the while secretly aching to just be a woman. Having the core of your femininity torn severely alters a woman's ability to be with other people, particularly with men, and we see this again and again with Julie. Reading Julie's story walked me through the process of dying and being re-born. It was cathartic and therapeutic, because we all have had moments when we give parts of our self away to others. Essentially, we have many deaths of our self's potential. Likewise, we always have opportunities to be the hero in our own story and get it right. This is the way of all humans, particularly the women of Appalachia.
The memories of mountain women in my cells and marrow sing “Hallelujah!” for Ivy and Julie. The novels of these hills will always be able to do that for me, and so I’ll return to them again and again.
Melissa T. Greene, MA, LPC-MHSP
Coordinator, Intensive In-Home Treatment
1921 Ransom Place
Nashville, TN 37217