In many works of literature, the setting, or “place” provides an important aesthetic. In many of the works assigned and discussed in this module, place has been crucial in the various stories and works. However, it appears to offer a great importance in the novel Fair and Tender Ladies by the author Lee Smith. The story takes place the Appalachian region of Virginia. This results in a distinctive culture that came with the place; the region has its own culture associated with the back mountain regions and its people.
The sense of place is important because it is a rural mountain community. The mountains offer a sense of security for the character of Ivy. She considered moving to the north for an education; she was quite interested in learning. However, she did not leave her community. She became pregnant or “ruint” as the condition was referred to in her town. This is a traumatic moment for her. She enjoyed school and learning. However, the teacher no longer will allow her to attend school. “Mis Maynard has said I am ruint and cannot come to help at the school anymore, that I have learned all they have to teach me anyway” (Smith). Others in the community also discuss how she has been “compromised” as a young woman. However, Ivy’s mother is much simpler in her approach.
She explains to her daughter that she is now in a difficult position. However, in the passage, the mountains play an important part. “And little Momma says nothing Beulah, she looks out at the mountains and smiles a little” (Smith). In this moment, it is apparent that the family draws its strength and inspiration from the setting and place in which they live. Her mother than discusses how the grandmother was also a woman of her own mind; it is apparent that the family’s life blood can be felt in the setting and place. The mountains are as much a part of the family as is their history. The two cannot be separated.
The story would most certainly change if the setting had been changed to another location. Smith is considered a “Southern writer” and as part of this genre. This region of the south is obviously much different from the Deep South. The Deep South was known for cotton fields and slavery. The Blue Ridge/Appalachian region was known for coal mining and poverty-stricken whites. In the Deep South writing heritage, while there was most certainly “poor whites,” there were also rich whites, such as plantation owners. This would not be found in the coalmining regions of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
While Smith’s sense of place in this story was the most well-done, the other stories also focused on the importance of place. In “The Garden Lodge” by Willa Cather, the entire story revolved around the importance of one place. The story allowed the reader to recognize how places become important with events in the memory of an individual. Other stories, however, used place as a setting that became an important aspect of the story. In “The White Heron” by Sarah Orne-Jewett, the setting of the woods and the country life is crucial. The protagonist was a city girl who begins to recognize the beauty of life. This can only occur if she is brought to a natural setting, away from the concrete buildings and sidewalks of her childhood.
Furthermore, Smith also brings the reader back to the Appalachian Mountains with “My Town.” In this story, Smith tells the story of her town and its people through the setting. This is true of many small towns that have remained untouched. Family histories become entwined with the backdrop of the town. In “Another American Way” by Barbara Kingsolver, the Back Mountain region is also important. This discussed the “Occupy” movement in another town. While New York City was the principle town, other communities experienced their own versions. In the mountains, it reminded the writer of how the coal miners had already taken a stand against the bankers. The writer would not focus on this if not for the setting.
If Ivy had grown up in the regions of the Deep South, her story would have been different. It would have been different even to a greater degree if her story took place in New England, or New York City. For instance, she had a fascination with the poverty of her region; she also had a fascination with any technology that came to her area. Ivy shows a fascination with the region in which she lives. This is not only about the mountains, plants and animals, but also the changing aspects of it. For instance, the community received electricity and its accoutrements, such as a radio, much later than did New England and New York City. These aspects of a modernization of a society impacts the people within the community. This is also true of religion. While Ivy never declares a particular religion, she does discuss missionaries to the area. One is from Boston and “describes the conditions……It seems to me that conditions are very good” (Smith). Obviously, the poverty-filled region and its associated beauty of landscape create a specific place for the novel. The struggle of the people, surrounded by such magnificent nature, allows the character of Ivy to keep her spirit intact throughout her life. She most certainly struggles in her life. However, she does so in some of the most amazing scenery on earth. This clearly impacts the novel.
Any novel that is only seen through the lens of one character is biased. One can never decide if the character is being truthful about all aspects; this may not be intentional. Humans are naturally biased, particularly in favor of themselves. If the novel had been told through the lens of a different character, it most certainly would have changed the tone. This is particularly true if the lens had been that of a male character.
The older brother, Victor, obviously experienced much of the same family and town history as did Ivy. However, his story might have been worldlier. He did fight in World War I. As such, the struggles of the town may not have seen so tragic to him; he obviously would have seen worse during “The Great War.” He also would have experienced how life is outside the community, in larger cities. He would have also had the scope of knowing individuals from other places. When Victor came back from the war, he was obviously changed. “He is a man now thogh, he is smoking cigarets” (Smith). Also, Victor rejects his ancestral attachment to the land; he tells his mother that he wants to go into the lumber trade. Victor’s experiences in the world opened his eyes up to new opportunities. Ivy did not have this and therefore, her ancestral attachment to the farmland remained intact. Ivy also knew that Victor had changed. While Victor told his mother that he would stay, “I knowed he wuld take off when he got good and ready and seek his fortune, as in the storys” (Smith). Ivy remained a girl who knew only of the world in which she lived and worked. Victor did not; his worldly experiences introduced him to another world. It would be a far different story if Victor told it.