A! Magazine for the Arts

Author Addresses Fair and Tender Ladies Controversy

December 4, 2007

***** This story appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier on Thursday, Nov. 29. ****

WISE, Va. - Lee Smith doesn't remember what she was doing when a friend phoned her a while back and told her the Washington County, Va., School Board was considering banning her popular novel "Fair and Tender Ladies" because of a few "crude" words deemed too graphic for teenage honor students.

Other friends called with the same news over a series of days, she said in an interview prior to a speaking engagement at The University of Virginia's College at Wise.

"I was sorry to hear it," Smith said. "This book is the book of my heart. It is a love story to Southwest Virginia. It memorializes and documents an earlier way of life."

The Grundy, Va. native said the book is a homage to a special group of people as well.

"It's for the older Appalachian women I was privileged to know as I was growing up," said Smith, the author of 11 works of fiction.

She didn't really fault the School Board members for their decision to have a committee review the book, which follows a young Appalachian girl named Ivy Rowe as she copes with many hardships of life in the mountains many years ago. But she certainly didn't applaud their action.

"On the other hand, I didn't write it specifically for young adults," she said.

A short passage in the novel deals with Ivy Rowe's first sexual experience and one School Board member agreed with others who objected to the descriptive language used.

"But, things have changed since I wrote it," Smith said of the book published nearly almost 10 years ago.

Kids today can log onto the Internet and find more shocking things in three seconds, she said. The same goes for cable television, she added.

The move to review the novel comes at a time when the reading of literature is in peril, Smith said. Reading is more important than ever, she said.

"I think books like 'Fair and Tender Ladies' address issues that teenagers are already dealing with these days," she said.

The book provides teens with a safe forum to address issues such as unwanted pregnancy and other topics, she said. The novel also demonstrates the necessity of a good education and highlights the importance of the region's heritage, she added.

If the School Board eventually bans the book, it is Smith's hope teenagers will read it anyway.

"I hope they pick it up so they will know how hard their grandparents had it," she said.

Ivy Rowe, the novel's voice, is almost universally viewed as an endearing character who stays with the reader long after the last page is turned.It's the same for Smith.

"I'm happy to have met her, too," she said. "She is such a strong, spunky girl."

Smith wrote the book during a difficult time in her life. Her mother was dying, her son was ill and she was going through a divorce.

"Ivy Rowe just showed up to be my best friend," she said. "Ivy Rowe is going to make it, no matter who bans her."

Critics who rave about Smith's novels all say she has an ear for the Appalachian dialect.

"It is beautiful, rich and so specific," she said of the regional language and phrases.

The specific phrases she uses in her work often results in minor tiffs with editors.

"All the time," she said with a hearty laugh.

One of her favorite examples is a New York editor who was working on her novel, "Devil's Dream," a book focusing on a family of traditional Appalachian musicians and songwriters.

A passage in the book deals with a songwriter who penned a tune featuring the phrase, "I'm a single gal in a doublewide with a double shot of gin."

The editor was sure a word was missing.

"Doublewide what?" the editor penned in a margin note to Smith.

"I don't mind translating for them," she said with wry smile.

Smith retains the accent she acquired in Grundy and she's proud of it. Her mother-in-law, a Boston native, once suggested she take elocution lessons since she was traveling around the nation on speaking engagements. Smith refused.

"This is a political decision," she said.

Smith returned to Grundy for a visit Wednesday before arriving in Wise. Her hometown was gone. The town is working on an expensive flood prevention project to rebuild Grundy across the banks of the hearty, and sometimestreacherous, Levisa River. The downtown buildings are gone and rocks and dirt are piled in small piles where buildings once stood. The area that will house the new retail area is still empty.

She paused at times to gather her thoughts when asked about Grundy, the death of its downtown, and its eventual rebirth.

"It's just, I spent my childhood in the dime store," she said of her father's Ben Franklin Five & Dime store that was a staple of life in Grundy. "I spent more time there than at home. It is really hard for me to see it like it is now."

Smith believes her late father would approve of the town's plans.

"He'd want anything better for the town of Grundy," she said.