Book review by Roy E. Perry: Lee Smith’s “Fair and Tender Ladies”

Editor’s Note:  Over the past few weeks, Roy E. Perry—who wrote book reviews for The Tennessean and Nashville Banner for more than 30 years—has been enthusiastically reading and reviewing the novels of acclaimed Southern writer Lee Smith. In his final review of one of Ms. Smith’s works, Mr. Perry focuses on the acclaimed novel that won the W. D. Weatherford Award in 1988 for outstanding new books about the Appalachian South.


Lee Smith’s seventh novel and arguably her best, Fair and Tender Ladies consists of a series of letters written by Ivy Rowe Fox to members of her family.

The novel begins in Sugar Fork, a “hollow” in which Ivy’s parents eke out a living on a hardscrabble farm. Soon Ivy Rowe, 17, has a “love child,” the first of her many amorous adventures.

A tragic firedamp explosion in the Diamond coal mine causes Ivy to muse, “Life is nothing but people leaving.” One is reminded of the litany found in the Book of Genesis: “He was born, he begat, and he died.” Fair and Tender Ladies is an extended chronicle of such inevitable losses.

Later in this epistolary novel, Ivy laments, “Everybody has took [sic] everything out of here—first the trees, then the coal, then the children.”

Ivy learns new perspectives on life the hard way—by chasing after the fool’s gold of sensuous pleasures. A young woman with a smoldering libido, she becomes involved with a “back-door man”—a man who goes out the back door while the woman’s husband comes in the front door.

Looked at objectively, the entire novel is Ivy’s apologia for her licentiousness, a desperate attempt to justify her lustful ways, which, she insists, are caused by her (God-given?) nature.

Regardless of how readers assess Ivy’s checkered career, one fact is plain: Lee Smith is a consummate storyteller. Her artistry both attracts us to and repels us from the protagonist. Ivy’s tortured pilgrimage exemplifies “the way of all flesh”—the tragi-comedy we call life.

Lee Smith was born in Grundy, Virginia, in 1944. She is the author of 12 novels and four collections of short stories.

For other book reviews by Roy E. Perry, please visit:

David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter,” both now available at Dave is also a freelance book editor, publicist, seminar and workshop leader, journalist, and advertising / marketing / public relations writer.

Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville by Dave Carew—which was praised by The Tennessean as “beautiful, haunting, powerful”—is now available in an all-new paperback edition. For more information, please visit and “like” the page on Facebook:

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Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective, offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”

Dave Carew



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