Voices from Virginia's heartland

FAIR AND TENDER LADIES by Lee Smith

New York: Putnam. 316 pp. $17.95

FIVE decades ago, a generation of women emerged from the hamlets and bustling cities of the Deep South to produce a literary renaissance. In their depictions of small-town postmistresses and starched schoolmarms, writers Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Katherine Anne Porter transformed the everyday into the extraordinarily compelling - changed our notions of what made great American novels and short stories.

Today, a new generation of writers is staking out equally provocative settings and themes. The venue has shifted a few degrees north, from Mississippi backroads to Mason-Dixon country, with Gail Godwin writing about mountaintop jealousies in her native North Carolina (``A Southern Family''), Jill McCorkle weighing the loyalties of Virginia wives and daughters (``Tending to Virginia''), Bobbie Ann Mason trying to keep pace with the dynamics of change in rural Kentucky (``Spence + Lila''), and Anne Tyler chronicling family life on the Maryland tidewater (``Breathing Lessons'').

There's another name that figures more prominently on this list with each new novel - Lee Smith. After reeling in accolades for two previous works, ``Family Linen'' and ``Oral History,'' she has landed another beauty with ``Fair and Tender Ladies,'' her seventh novel.

Drawing on a rich tradition of storytelling, legend, and song, Smith beckons her readers into the colloquial heartland of Virginia's Appalachian Mountains. There, in a cabin on Sugar Fork of Home Creek, on Blue Star Mountain, sits 12-year-old Ivy Rowe, quietly writing a letter to a prospective Pen Friend.

It's the first of almost 60 letters from Ivy to various friends and relatives which span more than 70 years, from the turn of the century to the present, and make up the narrative of this exquisite novel.

Although Ivy's horizons are bounded by the town of Majestic, just down the creek, and the Diamond Mining Company camp, over a nearby mountain, her gritty approach to life comes with its own transcendent vision. At 12, she confides to a childhood chum that she wants to be a writer, and also wants ``...to mary somebody that makes me feel like a poem thats for sartin ...'' At 70-plus, looking back on a marriage that started out as a compromise and grew into a truly tender relationship, she notes, ``I never became a writer at all. Instead I have loved, and loved, and loved. I am fair wore out with it.''

That's not to say that Ivy's winding road home follows maudlin, sentimental paths. This is a wild and spirited woman-child who has her share of passionate flings and struggles with more than her share of tragic burdens, including the deaths of her parents, a young lover, infant child, and husband, ``all too young to die.'' Through Ivy's curiously spelled and situated letters, we see the growth not only of her own family, but also of wider Appalachia. A half-century of events passes in stereopticon, dissolving review - from the sweat and grime of depression strip mines to the ``fairy lamps'' of rural electrification.

Smith has reached far back to the remembered summer evenings of her own childhood in rural Virginia and come up with the cadence of front-porch conversations and whittling. Ivy's voice is the heart of her work, and it shimmers with the surprise of a Mason jar filled with July's brightest lightning bugs.

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