By People Staff
November 14, 1988 12:00 PM

by Lee Smith

Novelist Lee Smith is a woman beset by voices: they scraped and chimed and squealed through her Appalachian memoir, Oral History, then settled down, as best they could, to tell Family Linen’s hilariously horrifying—and distinctly Southern—secrets. In this book, Smith reins in her raucous humor to listen to one voice, the joltingly clear sound of Ivy Rowe, whose passion for letter writing yields a poignant chronicle of enduring pride. From her first letter, at age 12, Ivy tugs at the heart. Assigned a Dutch pen pal, she enthusiastically communicates the news from rural Virginia, including observations on her one-room schoolteacher’s overly romantic mate, “for I take a intrest [sic] in Love because I want to be in Love one day and write poems about it, do you?” Well, that letter doesn’t make it off Blue Star, the mountain Ivy’s daddy chose “to rest his eyes against” when he decided to move to the country. But many other missives go their various ways, taking Ivy from the rebellious curiosity of adolescence to the lonely vigils of old age. She watches her father die and her mother grow bitter; sees an uncle seduce, a brother murder and a sister go mad; becomes pregnant, marries a man who isn’t the child’s father, mothers a scattering brood. Yet there is always something in Ivy that can’t be tamed, a restlessness that results, in one of the novel’s most sensuous segments, in temporarily abandoning her family to “walk up the mountain” with another, magical man. (Punishment comes with a vengeance—the death of a daughter.) Smith’s title is from a Kathryn Stripling Byer poem in which “fair and tender ladies” are “left to lie alone/ The sheets so cold/ the nights so long,” and Ivy’s story is indeed a solitary one. It is also a remarkably effective ode to a vanished mountain life and the female spirits that must haunt it still. (Putnam’s, $17.95)