"The hawk flys round and round, the sky is so blue. I think I can hear the old bell ringing like I rang it to call them home oh I was young then, and I walked in my body like a Queen"
Ivy Ransom in Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
I know this may sound crazy, but sometimes, I don't really know for sure if I like a book, even when I am in the middle of reading it. I read so much and so variously that novels seem to run together. Sometimes, I can't even remember for sure exactly what I have and haven't read. More problematically, I suppose, often I go into reading a novel with a bias based on my past impressions of the author. I've found this to be a real problem, as my reading tastes seem to change daily. At one point in my life, for example, I read a lot of Ruth Rendell and loved her. I remember thinking The Crocodile Bird was fantastic. A few years ago, I read some of her more recent works and thought, "yeah, not so much." Now I don't even remember what I didn't like or why. And don't even get me started on Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird framed my youth and my young adulthood as one of my reasons for being a lover of literature. Now I am making myself struggle to finish Go Set a Watchman. But that's a different post for a different day.
Right now, I want to talk about Lee Smith. I have been hit or miss with Lee Smith. I loved Oral History, and I loved On Agate Hill. But I had to make myself finish The Devil's Dream, and I was completely underwhelmed by Guests on Earth. So when I started Fair and Tender Ladies about four different times and it never caught me, I was on the verge of giving it up for good. Then Alexandra of The Sleepless Reader gave the book five stars on Goodreads, and I thought, "maybe I need to make myself finish this one." I am so glad I did. About half way into the novel, in my own constant interior monologue and also in my dreams, I found myself thinking in Ivy Ransom's voice, and that's when I knew they had me, Lee Smith and Ivy Ransom, they had me, and I loved this book and this character.
The book is a collection of letters Ivy writes to various people over the course of her life. I wasn't sure at first if I was going to like the structure or not, but it worked for this novel's purpose of revealing Ivy's life in pieces over time. And what a wonderful life it was. I try to avoid re-telling plot points or revealing much about characters, but I do want to note this: I love that Ivy Ransom never loses herself. She never loses sight of who she is; she never loses her own voice. I find this difficult to believe, given her time, place, and culture. One of my grandmothers would have grown up in almost exactly the same time and place as Ivy Ransom. The lessons of that culture still haunt me today. Those cultural mores usually overwhelm you in the end. I've fought against them my whole life, still do. And I will have to admit that I don't hold on to my own voice nearly as honestly nor as fearlessly as Ivy Ransom did. She is my hero, and I hope some day I learn to live as honestly and as ferociously as she did.