Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Fair and Tender Ladies

Rate this book
From Ivy Rowe's birth on Blue Star Mountain, her life is full of passion and longing as she writes letters to family and friends. Ivy's talent as a budding writer is recognized early on, but just as she is about to realize her dream of going north to school, she is betrayed by her passionate nature. Facing an unwed pregnancy and publicly admonished for her sins, Ivy marries a childhood friend who takes her back to the family homestead, where she bears several children and endures the endless toil of a farmer's wife. Through her trials Ivy holds firm, knowing that her life will hold happiness one day.

316 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1988

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Lee Smith

45 books821 followers
Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, nine-year-old Lee Smith was already writing--and selling, for a nickel apiece--stories about her neighbors in the coal boomtown of Grundy and the nearby isolated "hollers." Since 1968, she has published eleven novels, as well as three collections of short stories, and has received many writing awards.

The sense of place infusing her novels reveals her insight into and empathy for the people and culture of Appalachia. Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not 10 miles from the Kentucky border. The Smith home sat on Main Street, and the Levisa River ran just behind it. Her mother, Virginia, was a college graduate who had come to Grundy to teach school.

Her father, Ernest, a native of the area, operated a dime store. And it was in that store that Smith's training as a writer began. Through a peephole in the ceiling of the store, Smith would watch and listen to the shoppers, paying close attention to the details of how they talked and dressed and what they said.

"I didn't know any writers," Smith says, "[but] I grew up in the midst of people just talking and talking and talking and telling these stories. My Uncle Vern, who was in the legislature, was a famous storyteller, as were others, including my dad. It was very local. I mean, my mother could make a story out of anything; she'd go to the grocery store and come home with a story."

Smith describes herself as a "deeply weird" child. She was an insatiable reader. When she was 9 or 10, she wrote her first story, about Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell heading out west together to become Mormons--and embodying the very same themes, Smith says, that concern her even today. "You know, religion and flight, staying in one place or not staying, containment or flight--and religion." From Lee Smith's official website.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
3,258 (43%)
4 stars
2,675 (35%)
3 stars
1,169 (15%)
2 stars
248 (3%)
1 star
98 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 738 reviews
Profile Image for Candi.
598 reviews4,532 followers
March 28, 2018
"It’s funny how a person can be so busy living that they forget this is it. This is my life."

In the words of Ivy Rowe, one of the most spirited, wisest, and most memorable literary characters EVER, I am ‘ruint’ after reading this incredible novel! Seriously, I cannot get this book out of my head and out of my heart. It seems everything else will pale in comparison for quite some time. I had never heard of this book or the very talented author, Lee Smith, until now. I have surely been remiss, but it is never too late to make up for lost time. I’m sure Ivy would agree.

Make no mistake about this book – it’s not light and fluffy, not sappy, and not just another mundane book about the toils of a backwoods woman and her brood of children. What is this about then? Well, it’s so many things… it’s about the hopes and dreams of a young girl, love for family, courage, standing up for what you believe in, facing the consequences of your choices, middle age, great sorrow and abundant joy, love for the land, the passion for reading and writing, and about growing old with dignity. I’m sure as readers we’ve seen all of these topics tackled before. But never have I seen all of these things wrapped up in one package and expressed through a voice with such honesty, passion, and immediacy, with no excuses made nor any appeals for our sympathy or pity. "I have made my bed and I wish everybody would let me lie in it."

We follow the life of Ivy Rowe from adolescence to old age through a series of letters written to various persons – a childhood pen pal, siblings, parents, friends, teachers, and children. The letters are so intimate, however, that they are often more like a diary entry, sharing with us the deepest and truest thoughts of a very candid correspondent. Ivy Rowe was born up on Blue Star Mountain in Appalachia. Much of her writing is in the regional dialect, but this did not for one minute throw me off or confuse me. In fact, it added to the authenticity, as if I were reading real letters recovered from a young woman’s hope chest. As Ivy ages, likewise her writing matures. She dreams of becoming an author someday, and her letters are a testament to the fact that even if she never publishes a novel, she truly is a gifted writer. She shares with us her joy for life, memories of old stories, and her desire to travel and become educated. "I thought of sliding on the frozen river in the snow, and of the lady sisters skimming home across the snow after they had told their stories, I thought of the story of Whitebear Whittington, and then I thought of all the stories I dont know yet, of books and books full of stories in Boston. I immagined their lether bindings and their deep rich covers and the pretty swirling paper inside the covers, like the snow."

Ivy makes such astute observations on life; she makes mistakes – sometimes very big ones, and she forgives herself. I have often thought and said that forgiveness is a gift. Well, I do believe that is true. Ivy has taught me, however, that even more than forgiving another human being, forgiveness of one’s self is perhaps the most difficult yet the most generous of all. As Ivy enters middle age, a stage in life with which I can currently identify, her story becomes even more gripping and meaningful - perhaps because I can relate to those questions she asks herself about her own life and whether she has spent it in the way she had hoped. "I guess that the seeds of what we will do are in us all along, only sometimes they don’t get no water, they don’t grow. Other times, well – you see what can happen." Oh Ivy, you made me laugh, you made me cry, and you made me think… and think some more. I want to live my life as you did – with spunk, with acceptance, with strong affections and last but not least, with peace.

I probably don’t need to say it, but this is a clear favorite and I would tell anyone to please read this book! I have to return this little jewel to the library soon, but my very own copy should arrive any day now - along with one more Lee Smith novel I have ordered, likely to be followed by a succession of her work.

"This is important, I want to remember this, it is all so important, this is happening to me. And I am so glad to write it down lest I forget."
Profile Image for Angela M (On a little break).
1,270 reviews2,217 followers
February 3, 2020
If only I could give more than 5 stars !
A life in letters from a wise and wonderful character named Ivy Rowe. Through her eyes we come to know her life, more than her life alone, but anyone who was a part of it . It’s a family saga, a story of a place, a history of events. The letters are not written to us, the readers, but to friends and family and even to her father after he died. Yet, I felt like a confidant, a friend who one can bare their heart and soul to because Ivy gives of her heart and soul in every letter we read. It is with courage and strength that she lives this life, with its struggles, acknowledging and accepting her mistakes, but living her life as it is with joy and hope, and love for those in her life.

“ I decided that I had made my bed and would lie in it as before. I’m getting to be an expert at makin’ beds”.

Ivy took me to Sugar Fork, VA and right from the beginning, I was everywhere with her as she moved from a mountain cabin to a town in Majestic, VA, to Diamond ,VA and then back to her roots in Sugar Fork.

“ ...daddy I’m like you , I need the pure high air and a mountain to lay my eyes against.”

Emanating from these letters is a history, as her words take us through changes in the country as the lumbering work turns to coal mining, the danger and misery that the mines brought, the railroad, electricity coming to the mountains, the wars, the flu, the deaths, the hard times and all of the changes in Ivy’s life. She takes us along with her as she experiences the people coming and going from her life, leaving or dying.

“It seemed to me life is nothin’ but people leavin’”

The older she gets, the more outspoken she becomes, the more wise she becomes, and the more aware she becomes of herself, her life, her past, where she hopes to go from each point in time. I can’t remember a character who was as genuine. Like so many others who loved this story, I wholeheartedly agree that Ivy is a character for the ages, a character who won’t be easy to forget. Ultimately, it isn’t the places she moves to and from, but the journey of her heart that moved me. It was a privilege to know Ivy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the narrator Kate Forbes. The narration is perfect in tone, inflection and dialect. This is 2nd fiction book on audio read by Kate Forbes that I have listened to, actually the second fiction book I’ve listened to ever. It wasn’t an accident that I chose this one because of how much I loved her narration of A Parchment of Leaves . I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful review by my friend Candi which just so perfectly captures the essence of Ivy Rowe, now one of my all time favorite characters. Candi’s review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,845 reviews34.9k followers
March 26, 2018
“From where we stood, we could see for miles. I thought I could see Sugar Fork but I couldn’t be sure, there were lots and lots of hollers, and I saw them all, valley after valley, ridge after ridge, Bethel Mountain beyond — but now for the first time I could see over the top of Bethel Mountain to another mountain, blue, purple, then mountain after mountain, rolling like the sea. It was so beautiful. A single twisted pine grew bravely up out of the rocks before us. Mile after mile of empty air stretched out behind it, the sky so blue, the sun so bright. And the wind, which kept on blowing all the time — now I recalled the famous endless wind on top of Blue Star Mountain”.

Ivy Rowe......
A devoted pen pal, a ‘forever’ devoted pen pal, a “I will remane forever I hope your devoted Pen friend”, a “I do not know wether you will recive this letter or not
thogh I remane forever your devoted”, your devoted granddaughter,
“I will not send this letter as I remane your hateful”, sharing ...”we are fine thogh and I remane your devoted”, forever always, your devoted Ivy Rowe, “I remane your exited and grateful”, forever best friend, devoted sister,.....
“Oh Daddy I miss you so much do not think I am crazy because I feel they is something terible starting to happen and you know it is dog days so whatever it is will go on happening, but I remane your loving devoted daughter”, yor devoted friend, “But I miss Momma. But I remain your devoted although ruint sister”,
“I remane yor truthful”, forever your devoted best friend, “I remane your grateful”,
“I remane your loving sister”, .... ......a loving sister, a long last sister, a happy sister, a crazy sister, a loyal sister, your sister, a thankful student, wife, your loving mama, an aging thin sister, “now I remain your loving and old mamaw”.

Sometimes when Ivy was growing up —- [compassionate by nature] — even with so many people on the mountain —Ivy still felt lonesome. She didn’t feel as though she had anybody she could really talk with. But - she knew when her baby Joli came — she would talk with her.
Ivy wrote letters ....
I LOVED THEM ALL.....( she also always loved a story) ....
There was one letter where I wanted to stand up and cheer, “HALLELUJAH, AMEN, YOU GO GIRL”:
“Dear Miss Mabel Maynard,
I know you will be interested to hear from me because you acted so mean to me always and then you felt at my stomach the day I left, and ran off crying. You cannot deny you did this, because you did. And since I got up here, I have had some time to think about it, and reflect. So I have something to say to you.
Miss Maynard, do not pity me. Do not bother to dislike me, nor pity me, nor anything else, because I do not need anything from you, nor want to either.
My Little baby Joli Rowe was born September 10, 1918. She is all mine, I have never had a thing of my own before. She is the most beautiful baby in the world.
So, I pity you!”
Your former acquaintance, Ivy Rowe

Ivy Rowe.....
I loved her spirit!
She had a zest for love - for inner understanding- accepting the way that things turn out - not always as we dreamed - seeing reality and people - and herself - the way they/ she really were/was.
Ivy was mindful - aware - made mistakes and took responsibility for them - Sometime she was tired of being grateful- could you blame anyone? But mostly Ivy ‘was’ a grateful human being. She lived her life without regret.....knew when to apologize.....lived through good and bad days. She danced - she mourned -
made us laugh and cry. And she taught us that by following our own path —life can be a truly fulfilling existence.

This was my first Lee Smith book —- THANK YOU Sara.....and Diane too.....
BOTH of your reviews express how I feel about this book deep down myself.
I can’t ever remember reading a portrait of life — spanning 70 years of an Appalachian woman. Or .....of any woman that was so wholeheartedly beautiful.
I’m touched as can be by this unforgettable story.....( and boy the stories just keep coming and coming).....with 8 siblings alone....life is not dull.
I loved it all ......
INCREDIBLE writing! I paid attention to the way the dialect changed over the years.
Wow....I tried to imagine the patience and skill it had to take to write an entire novel like this. It was actually very easy to read but I can’t imagine it was easy to write.
Artistic writing talent!!! Really gorgeous - and sooooo charming!!

*Poppycock*......My favorite FUN WORD ....... Ivy used it several times!
nonsense - hogwash- baloney!

Brilliantly written.....heartwarming to our souls!!!




Profile Image for Karen.
552 reviews1,080 followers
February 14, 2020
I want to thank all of you who have written amazing reviews for this book that led me to read it!
Ivy Rowe had my heart, believe you me!
Ivy was a mountain girl who grew up in Sugar Fork, Virginia in a poor, big family.. one of eight children. From early on she loved writing! At the suggestion of her schoolteacher she begins to write letters.
So, this book is a series of letters written by Ivy to various recipients..from childhood till her death... from the early 1900’s through 1970’s.. through the death of her parents, being ruint by an early pregnancy, coal mining years, the loves in her life, sibling relationships, the children she bore and lost, life on the mountain, everything.. even intimate thoughts and actions.
I loved her..she was spunky and outspoken and just the real deal.
Highly recommended!❤️
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,208 reviews453 followers
March 1, 2018
I just re-acquainted myself with Ivy Rowe, after an absence of 30 years, and she is still the same wonderful woman I knew then. I have been in her heart and in her head for the last few days, and am now emerging with an inspired sense of just how wonderful life can be when you face it with awe and courage.

Ivy was not a paragon of virtue by society's standards. She followed her heart and her passions, never doing the sensible thing, though she was as smart as they came. She loved indiscriminately, but not always wisely, and refused to apologize for her decisions. She was religious in her own way, but never "got saved" or was much of a church-goer, as she disagreed with a lot of God's plans and actions. She trusted herself to do what was right for her, a thing that can be hard to do in a small mountain community. But as she said, "once you are ruint, it gives you a lot of freedom".

Born in 1900, we follow Ivy's life through the letters she wrote to friends and family. From a childhood with 8 brothers and siblings, on a farm way up high on Sugar Fork, through youth and marriage and motherhood and old age, we hear her opinions on everything she cares most about.

Oh, let me age as Ivy did, always learning, ready to accept new ways, but recognizing the value of the old ways too. "I said to Maudy, Those birth control pills are great. They are the greatest thing since drip dry. You ought to get yourself some".

Her father used to say, "Farming is pretty work". So is writing, when you do it like Lee Smith does, creating a world and populating it with a heroine like Ivy Rowe. My second reading of this book cements her place in literary characters never to be forgotten.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book444 followers
March 19, 2018
This is a fabulous book with an unforgettable heroine named Ivy Rowe. It is great--believe you me! Set out in letters that begin with a twelve year old Ivy and take us through an entire lifetime, Ivy’s soul is put onto paper, sprinkled with all her hopes, dreams and disappointments. I defy anyone to get past the first letter without loving Ivy unreservedly. She surely made me laugh, cry, rejoice and lament, and she made me remember something of a life that I once had a glimpse of that is now gone forever. If you traveled deep into Appalachia, you might find people still living somewhat the same, but I doubt it. There just isn’t anywhere like Blue Star Mountain anymore.

I have sometimes thought that my own life has a soundtrack. I can conjure up specific events and people when I hear certain songs. Apparently, Ivy Rowe’s life had a soundtrack as well. I loved all the references to old songs and, after one of my fine GR friends, Tom, posted one of the songs off of Youtube, I felt compelled to seek out every song that was mentioned and listen to them one by one. It was a surreal experience, since they were songs that conjured my own father and his brothers, who loved nothing better than to get together on the porch with fiddle and guitars and fill the night with folk music, hymns and popular songs of their time.

Ivy dreams of a bigger life, one filled with purpose and travel and adventure, but she finds hers is destined to be a rather simple life, lived primarily at Sugar Fork and circling around a small community and a limited number of people. But, I think she finds, in the end, that simple lives have purpose too, and perhaps as many or more facets than those lived in exotic places or in fancy homes. Like the creek that leads to Sugar Fork, her life meanders and turns and changes, and it is the memory of all that moving water that matters the most.

"I felt a pain shoot through me, like an arrow in my heart. Oh Joli, you get so various as you get old! I have been so many people. And yet I think the most important thing is Don't Forget. Don't ever forget."

Lee Smith is an adroit writer, who almost paints her scenes, like airbrushing with words. I had a true sense of the beauty and wildness of Sugar Fork, the rising mountains, the foliage, and the fields of wildflowers.

"But night comes in slow over Bethel Mountain and we watch it come, like it is sneaking in I reckon, stealing across the mountains ridge by ridge, they go blue and purple before your very eyes, and then the mist will rise."

I could not be happier to have climbed this mountain with Ivy. She is so refreshingly open-minded, so kind, feeling, accepting and imperfect. Like so many of us, she doesn’t always appreciate what she has, she acts rashly, she caves into desires she barely understands, she falls for lines that she knows are not true, but she presses forward, forgives others and often forgives herself. But, through it all, she chooses. She never abdicates the choice to others and the responsibility, credit and the blame, are always hers alone. If, at the end of my life, I could look back and see a life as full of love and meaning as Ivy’s, I think I could be satisfied.

I am always indebted to Diane and The Southern Literary Trail for introducing me to the best authors and the finest books. I have discovered Tom Franklin, Howard Bahr, Tim Gautreaux, Michael Farris Smith, and now Lee Smith. How on earth do you say “thank you” for that?



Profile Image for Kerrin .
275 reviews234 followers
July 22, 2021
Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is an epistolary novel consisting entirely of letters written by Ivy Rowe, starting around age 12 and chronologically going through her last years. The letters are sometimes humorous, sometimes harsh, full of gossip, and always heartfelt. They are written to a variety of people including family, friends, and one hoped-for pen pal. The most intimate letters are written to her institutionalized sister. The reader is not privy to anyone’s replies, so the entire viewpoint is from Ivy. The first letters are filled with misspelled words and local sayings. As Ivy matures, her spelling improves and the topics she discusses become more complex.

Ivy was born in the early 1900s and was one of many children in a loving family in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her father was a poor farmer who died young. The family gradually drifted apart. Ivy was a gifted storyteller and writer, but her chances of furthering her education were hindered first by her father’s illness and then later when Ivy becomes a teenaged unwed mother. She continues her storytelling through her letters, pouring heart and soul into each one.

Ivy lives during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. For part of her life, she lived and worked in a mining town where the workers were in constant danger from the lack of safety protocols. Her beauty catches the eye of the mine superintendent’s free-wheeling son. But she marries a childhood friend and had several children and miscarriages during their long marriage.

Ivy is a complicated woman, full of emotions. Her life has lost opportunities but she takes great joy in her own children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments. She longs to travel but always stays close to home. She questions God and refuses to be baptized. She makes scandalous mistakes but owns up to them. Above all, she lives and loves passionately. Ivy Rowe and her zest for life will stay with me for a long time.

I chose this for my book club’s July 2021 selection. I know Ivy will give us plenty to talk about. I am curious as to what the other members think of the novel’s title, which confuses me. The novel opens with a poem called Weep-Willow. There is a line that says “Come down among the willow shade and weep, you fair and tender ladies left to lie alone, the sheets so cold, the nights so long.” While the red-headed protagonist is fair-skinned, she is far from tender. And if Ivy was ever left alone, it was because she wanted to be alone.

I had both the Kindle book and the Audible book. I enjoyed reading Ivy’s writing with the misspellings and flourishes. I also enjoyed listening to the excellent narration while I was busy with several tasks. The eBook is 384 pages. The audio is 13 hours and 23 minutes. It was first published in 1988.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,684 reviews2,239 followers
October 8, 2018
”Baby when I get down I turn to you
And you make sense of what I do
I know it isn't hard to say
But baby just when this world seems mean and cold
Our love comes shining red and gold
And all the rest is by the way

“Why worry, there should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now”


-- Why Worry, Emmylou Harris, Mark Knopfler, Songwriters: Mark Knopfler


”Oh Ivy, sing ivory, rosebud and thorn…”

An epistolary novel, this story is told through letters from young Ivy, beginning around her 12th year, to pen pals, family and friends. Through these, we learn not only her story, but also the story of this hardscrabble way of life in the turn of the century for those living in Virginia’s Appalachian region. Along with the struggles of this life, young Ivy struggles with spelling, as her early letters show, but that takes away none of the charm, especially as lovely as her letters can be.

The first of her ”Letters from Sugar Fork” she writes to another young girl of the story of how her parents first came to live on Blue Star Mountain, and her mother’s thoughts when she first saw the land of their future home.

”She saw Sugar Fork sparkle in the sun like a ladys dimond necklace.
“She saw Pilgrim Knob rise up direckly behind the house, and Blue Star Mountain beyond. They call it that because of how blue it looks from down below, along Home Creek and Daves Branch, why you can see Blue Star Mountain clear from Majestic on a pretty day…now you can see all them neghbor peoples houses fine but you cant see ourn, nor get to it nether, without wanting to. You are not going to happen upon us, is what I mean. And Blue Star Mountain don’t seem so blue nether, when you up here. But it is the prettest place in the world.”


As Ivy grows older, her spelling shows improvement, but retains the colloquial speech of this region, which I loved.

Ivy loves her family, especially her sister Silvaney, who is ”so pretty, she is the sweetest, all silverhaired like she was fotched up on the moon.” Silvaney is five years older than Ivy, but due to the “brain fever” Silvaney had as a child, life is more challenging for her, and so they play together. In their childhood they play house together, building ovens out of rocks, and “cookies” out of sticks, drawing water from Sugar Fork, and added fancy hair dressings out of Black-Eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s Lace. And while their life is not an easy one, life is good.

But life has a way of changing courses, as most of us know, and as years pass, changes do come, some - perhaps most - unwelcome, but some are just nature’s way. Ivy matures physically, and her dreams change as the years pass, but there is a recognition of her truth, at her core. The words of Shakespeare’s Polonius, “This above all: to thine own self be true” seem to be her life’s song, even when she finds herself “ruint,” and the object of gossip, she owns her decisions and refuses to feel shame in them. She forgives herself, and others, their trespasses.

Reflecting on the swift passing of time, the loss of those idyllic, lazy days of childhood, and those spent playing with Sylvaney, she writes:

“I think this is one reason I write so many letters to you, Silvaney, to hold onto what is passing. Because the days seem to go faster and faster, especially now that I have got Joli, the days whirl along like the leaves blowing down off the mountain right now. I remember Geneva saying that the older you get, the faster time goes by. Well, I want to stop it! I want to hold up its flight like you would hold up a train, and steal what I can from each day.”

So many reflections on love, what constitutes a life well-lived, the busy-ness of life meddling with the things that matter most.

"It’s funny how a person can be so busy living that they forget this is it. This is my life."

Oh, Ivy Rowe. How I have loved spending time with you.
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
580 reviews326 followers
March 27, 2018
4.5 ★
Take me home country roads . I had a friend, recently deceased, who was raised in the Ozark mountains and I could hear her accent and unique phrases like “down to a gnat’s eyelash” as told through Ivy Rowe’s letters recounting her life on Blue Star Mountain as she describes passing through a field of "lighning bugs like walking among the stars in the sky." I was unfamiliar with the author until I heard her comments about Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird as part of a recent documentary on PBS. Coincidentally my GR friend Connie had recently posted her review on this book. Years ago I saw a movie called Songcatcher about a woman named Lily who "ventures into the most isolated areas of the mountains to collect songs and finds herself increasingly enchanted—not only by the rugged purity of the music, but also by the raw courage and endurance of the local people as they carve out meaningful lives against the harshest conditions” (quote from film review). More recently I have enjoyed reading about American Appalachia, past and present, through the writing of author Ron Rash. Fortunately, all this has supplanted the only other image of the area and its people I had originally been exposed to in the movie Deliverance. Probably not for everyone and no doubt my personal tastes played a big part in my enjoyment of this novel, but like Lily I was completely enchanted. Highly recommend if you want to travel back to another time and place that has disappeared along with the great American Chestnut tree.
.

Singing that tells a story from Songcatcher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNN6q...
Profile Image for Suzy.
747 reviews235 followers
March 27, 2019
I had not heard of this author nor of this book before I saw it was a pick this month of the GR group On the Southern Literary Trail. It’s a favorite group that has introduced me to many great authors and stories, so I dived right in. Boy, am I glad I did! This book will certainly have a place in my top ten books ever. Yes, it was that good.

Ivy Rowe is a woman born into a dirt-poor family on a farm beside Sugar Fork creek on a mountain in southwest Virginia coal country, an often-cruel circumstance. But Ivy has a zest for life, an unceasing curiosity, a drive for education, an outsized love of nature and a passion for writing. We meet her in 1915 when she is twelve and we get to know about her life through the letters she writes over the years to a handful of family and friends. And what a life! She wants to be a writer and gets oh-so-close to going north to be educated in Boston, but life has other plans for Ivy. Life is not always easy and her drive to live it fully doesn’t always lead her in the best direction, but Ivy is a model for making the best of her choices and what life throws at her.

I loved watching the sweep of history unfold through Ivy’s letters from 1915 through the early 1970’s. When she tells, for example, a friend about rural electrification coming to the valley below her, we too are amazed at the moment the lights go on, looking like a valley full of fireflies. We feel her heart break at the loss of lives from war, we know the thrill of her first store-bought dress, we marvel along with her getting a radio and listening to baseball, and we too chuckle at women wearing pantsuits.

Ivy doesn’t just live life, she sees life and from this seeing comes a deep knowing. As we experience life through Ivy’s eyes, we are able to see and to know as well. When I finished Fair and Tender Ladies, I was “ruint” for reading anything else for a few days, to borrow one of Ivy’s oft-use words.

A note on the audiobook
This was one of the best I’ve ever listened to. I felt as if I were sitting on the front porch up there on the mountain with Ivy as she told me the story of her life. While I was reading this book, I found myself thinking and talking with a southern accent! After all, if I were sitting up there with her, I must speak that way too. We likely had a pitcher of lemonade, a fan to keep us cool from the heat and perhaps bluegrass music playing on the radio.
Profile Image for Lawyer.
384 reviews822 followers
March 3, 2018
Fair and Tender Ladies: A Life Well Lived

My sincere thanks to Diane Barnes, my reading friend and a Co-Moderator of On the Southern Literary Trail, who selected Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith, as her Moderator's Choice for March, 2018.

3 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8, King James Version


Those few verses render the entire range of our lives on this earth. It is simple and it is wise. For it is the story of each of us. These are among my favorite verses of the Bible. Never have I seen it written so beautifully, so perfectly, as in this novel by Lee Smith.

Ivy Rowe is a woman whose life will remain indelibly a part of my life as a reader. While each of us lives out the words of Ecclesiastes, each of us must do so in our own way. This is Ivy Rowe's story. Told completely in the letters Ivy wrote through the course of her life, from a budding adolescent to a very old woman.

This book is one to cherish, to keep, to love, to return to, no matter how many books we have left unread in the time allotted to us. It is simply that special. Ivy has much to tell us and she does in a manner each of us can see a bit of ourselves, whether man or woman. We laugh with her. We cry with her.

As simple as the words of Ecclesiastes are, contained in them is the question just when is it time to do those things in our lives. Often the time to get may be easy. To keep may be as easy. But accepting loss and deciding to cast away what we have held dear is not so easily done.

The life of Ivy Rowe teaches the answers to the hard questions. Ivy's story is that of a life well lived. It now joins the relatively few books on my favorites shelf. May it be on yours as well.

Profile Image for Connie Cox.
286 reviews180 followers
February 10, 2017
Lee Smiths beautiful prose in this story told through the letters of Ivy Rowe made my heart and mind sing with nostalgia. This story follows the stubborn and very wise Ivy from a young girl at the end of the 18th century to a very old woman in the mid 1900's. Though poor and poorly educated she had a thirst for knowledge and a zest for life. She never lost that ability of the young to look around and see the beauty of your surroundings as well as be grateful for the simplest things in life. Ivy was not simple, far from it but she always kept that sense of awe and wonder.
This story is about hardship, about great love, about great loss as well as about great yearning and disappointment. Family mattered, no matter what. Ivy travelled through her life with a dignity and quite a sense of humor that was matched only by how strongly she felt things. She had little fear and charged ahead without considering consequences, then accepted whatever came her way.
Having come from a family of strong midwestern pioneers, and having lived in the mountains of rural Tennessee and North Carolina that mimic the setting of this story I appreciated how on target Smith was in her descriptions of the people, the traditions, the lore of this generation. Her descriptions of the settings were lyrical, almost musical and I could close my eyes and see the fields of wildflowers, smell the rain in the air before the storm, hear the birds in the early morning and feel the dew on my bare feet.
Having also received a weekly letter from home for the last 35 years of my life (since I left home) I could appreciate Ivy's letters as her way to stay connected to those who held a place in her heart. These letters were full of great sorrows and joys and everything in between. I also appreciated the changes in society that were discussed in these letters, how progress in the world eventually comes to all corners. We learned about not only Ivy's life but that of her family as well through these letters. She was the person who kept them all connected.
With Fair and Tender Ladies Smith has cemented herself in my mind as the ultimate writer of Southern story telling. I listened to the audio and so appreciated the language of the mountains. The dialogue held the charm of the rural, mountain folk yet the speech was almost like the old English, no contractions but correct grammar. The spot on narrative took this to a 5 star rating. It has been a while since I have laughed, and cried and embraced a character as I did with Ivey. I will miss her.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,647 reviews1,486 followers
March 29, 2016
This book is special. The cover may give you the impression that this is fluff. It is not!

It is set in the Appalachians of Virginia. It covers the 1900s through to the 70s. Both wars and the Depression. Yet history is not the focus even if it of course plays a role in shaping events. The focus is a family, the family of Ivy Rowe. She has six siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends and her own five kids. They get married, and they have kids. Each one of these becomes a person you know. Not once was I confused about who was who! Ivy thought she would become a writer, but she never did. Yet she did, in her own way, because what we are reading are her letters to friends and those in her family. Her whole life is told through these letters. I never imagined that such a complete, heartrending and delightful story could possibly be told through only letters! She reveals her innermost thoughts in letters that are not sent, and thus in this way we get the truth. I would never have trusted only letters to friends and family, because don’t we hide stuff from each other?!

What is so special about this book is
- the writing. Ivy expresses herself simply and honestly and beautifully. Great writing. Beautiful lines and lines to ponder.
- the in-depth character portrayals. Each character becomes someone you know well. Each one is a mix of good and bad. Ivy tells all. She thinks, she simply cannot stop thinking. We watch her from early youth to old age. Through these letters we learn of her life and the life of those close to her. At the end when she is old, you don't want her to die. You cannot bear to lose her. Through her you think of your own life.
- the accurate and detailed picture drawn of a "mountain girl's" life in the South. Gorgeous writing about rural places - mountains and creeks and hollers. You don’t know what a holler is? In the Appalachians this word is used for a valley region between two hills or mountains, often with a creek. Southern expressions and dialect create a feeling of place.

The audiobook narration by Kate Forbes was superb. This is one of those cases where listening to the book is better than just reading it. The dialect and sound you hear further enhance the atmosphere. You hear as Ivy ages, scarcely noting that her voice has changed! Never hard to follow and a great choice for those who have little experience with audiobooks.

When I close this book I am sad because it is over.

I will be grabbing more by this author. My next will be her memoir: Dimestore: A Writer's Life.
Profile Image for Antoinette.
716 reviews32 followers
May 29, 2020
Ivy Rowe’s voice has been living in my mind since I started this book. When I wake at night, I hear her talking with her Virginia twang. She is certainly a memorable character.

Ivy loves to write letters- we learn about Ivy, her family,her loves and her life on the mountains. The letters are Ivy’s connection to the outside world. It made me yearn for the lost art of letter writing.

Ivy had a unique personality- high spirited, head strong, impetuous, caring, loving but also irresponsible. I am glad she wasn’t totally perfect, or else, who knows if I would have found her as believable.

I totally enjoyed submerging myself in Ivy’s thoughts and words.

“ A person can not afford to forget who they are or where they came from, or so I think, even when the remembering brings pain.”

“ The true nature will come out whether or no, we have all got a true nature and we can hide it, it will pop out when you least expect it.”

This is a book that I will definitely remember, with the unique voice that is Ivy Rowe. If you enjoy epistolary novels, then you will most definitely enjoy this one.

Forgot to add my thanks to my GR friends- Candi and Cheri, whose reviews brought me to this book!! Loved the recommendation:)
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,678 reviews203 followers
April 27, 2020
Ivy Rowe, a poor undereducated girl growing up in Sugar Fork, Virginia, writes a series of letters to teachers, relatives, and friends. Through these letters, dating from the early 1900’s to the 1970’s, she tells her life story as well as the history of the southern Appalachian region. She paints a picture in words of her pastoral life, love of stories, family triumphs and tragedies, relationships, and personal decisions that shape her life.

The author evokes a strong sense of place, describing the weather, plants, animals, and natural beauty of the area. Ivy is a spirited, rebellious, and opinionated character. In keeping with the tradition of oral storytelling, and a sense of authenticity, the letters are written using the local dialect, colloquialisms, misspellings, and flawed grammar. The dialect lessens in later chapters, but I found this style bothersome and could only read small portions at a time. Luckily, the epistolary nature of the book makes it easy to read a few letters and come back to it later.

I can only guess that the title is ironic, as there are many strong women found here, and not many “fair and tender ladies.” It is also possible the title refers to the heroines of the books that Ivy loves to read. One of my favorite parts is the sense of immersion into history, as we see Ivy’s family home, farm, and local area become more modernized. Some of these changes pertain to automobiles, coal mines, union disputes, electricity, shopping habits, young men going off to war, and so much more. The author avoids becoming overly sentimental, and I enjoyed it much more than expected.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,142 reviews485 followers
April 11, 2019
So here we have Ivy Rowe, daughter of Maude Castle Rowe and John Arthur Rowe. Her siblings were Silvaney, Ethel, Beulah, Garnie, Johnny, and Victor. Pardon me if I left one out. Sugar Fork farm was their homestead up in the Smokie Appalachians of South Carolina. Dirt-poor and dire spelled out their destiny. Oakley Fox was Ivy's eventual husband.

Her autodidactive life came out in different letters to a world full of characters. The one more sinful, adventurous or colorful than the next.

Oakley was the real gentle soul in this narrative. He lived for other people, he helped whomever needed it (including Ivy), and died a hero without realising it. But that's late in the story though.

Ivy was ' ruint', lost, sanctified, hellbent, spitfire, proud, scandalous, beholden and grateful (although at one point, she became sick to death of the latter two). In fact she was also tired to death of people with good intentions who tried to advise her. They were the worst of all, Ivy said. Her soul was wild. Yet, she was a puffweed underneath it all, she thought. Loving. (That's a matter of opinion, dear Ivy). Like Geneva Hunt, the woman who took her mother and surviving siblings in, was as scandalous as Ivy. But Geneva moved on to become an institution in the end. Perhaps Ivy did as well. Not really, Ivy thought. Her problem according to her, was that she couldn't give up a thing! Nothing. She couldn't forget. She could not move on. She was having a heart attack all the time.
Geneva is 70 if she’s a day, and still up to no good. There is something in me which admires this, and wants to ride hell for leather down the high road of life like Geneva does. But I am somehow lacking in gumption and pluck, or else it is that I have got to think about things too much finally . I can't help it. You know I have always got to write my letters, and think about what's happened, and what I've done....

... All of a sudden I remembered one time way way back when Revel was taking us someplace in the wagon, now this was not too long after Daddy died and before Revel had to leave here. We were going to town in the wagon and a mad dog came up and started barking and the mules tried to run off in opposite directions. We had to hang on for dear life! I remember Beulah’s screams, to this day. I remember how the mules’ breath hung white in the frosty air. Then finally Revel shot the dog, and that was that.

But sometimes I feel I am caught in that wild bucking wagon yet, with no one here to shoot the dog.
Then there was Franklin Ransom, who stirred her blood with his amorous adventures, his tireless hunt for satisfaction, and his ruthless pursuasion of debauchery. Ivy could color him in, but could never get his outline right.
The apple trees behind the house were like a rolling sea of sweet pink clouds. The rosybush by the front steps is still in bloom, and the lilac by the back door never had so many flowers. It is beautiful up here. Try to think of me like this, in all these flowers, and don’t be mad at me or disappointed because I failed to marry Franklin Ransom as you hoped, or make a schoolteacher either as Mrs. Brown and Miss Torrington wished. I guess I am too flighty to make a good schoolteacher anyhow—I still get all carried away! So I will just write my letters instead, for it means so much to me to keep in touch.
And later, in her forties, along came Honey Breeding...
Life seems contrary to me, as contrary as I am. I feel like you never say what you ought to, nor do as you should, and then it is too late. It is all over. I have spent half of my life wanting and the other half grieving, and most often I have been wanting and grieving the same thing. There has been precious little inbetween.
It is a sweet tale, filled with picturesque descriptions of Ivy's environment, interactions, and her rendition of history. The southern rhythmic language came through from beginning to end. A charming ode to hardship and happiness(which finally manifested itself when Ivy became a proud mountain woman in old age).

Just about everyone is falling over themselves to rate this book five stars. I can see why. And for me it is a recommended read for women, that is, if you share in the underlying philosophy. But like Ivy, I don't look at life through tinted lenses. So here is the reason why I did not rate it higher. Bite me if you feel like it.

The loss of two stars:
Profile Image for Julie  Durnell.
992 reviews92 followers
March 9, 2018
A totally 5-star book! This is an exceptional epic story of Appalachia in the 20th century written entirely as letters to people in Ivy's life. I was so unexpectedly taken with this life story. The vernacular put me off just a bit at first but then I settled in to sit a spell with Ivy and her family and neighbors. It is just an incredible slice of the Virginia Appalachia life back then. It tells it like was but does not wallow in the poverty or anything that offshoots from that. Ivy loved learning and reading and while she doesn't break from her roots she does somewhat rise above it. She made mistakes but learned from those and doesn't look back with too much regret. As she becomes an older woman one becomes aware just how strong she is, facing hardship and raising a family on the mountain.
In her words: "I will not be lonely. Even if it is just me sitting on this porch, I will not be lonely. But I will tell you another fact which is just as true, it hit me yesterday. I can read every book that John O'Hara ever wrote. I can make up my own life now whichever way I want to, it is like I am a girl again, for I am not beholden to a soul. I can act like a crazy old woman if I want to which I do. I can get up in the morning and eat a hotdog, which I did yesterday. I don't know what I might do tomorrow!"
There are very, very few books that I could finish and then start right back in re-reading but this I sure could. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for JG (Introverted Reader).
1,112 reviews483 followers
July 13, 2009
I'm an Appalachian mountain girl. I felt like I knew Ivy from the first sentence. She truly seemed to come to life on the pages. I came along a few generations after her time, but I felt like she could be one of my grandmothers. She talked the way I probably still talk :-) Education was important to her, and she was very smart, but she never really got a chance. I guess, really, I felt like I could have been reading family history. That says a lot about a novel.

Re-read June 28, 2009

There's not all that much to add. This is a book that touches my heart and it's hard for me to write about those.

Ivy Rowe is this book. She's spunky, she makes mistakes, she loves, she lives, she's stubborn, she's wrong sometimes; in short, she just feels real to me in a way that very few characters do. Oh, I write fairly often about how I love this or that character, but Ivy feels like someone I know. The novel is written in a series of letters that Ivy writes to others. You get inside her head and stay there. You follow Ivy from the time she's about 10 years old on. There's a whole progression of wide-eyed optimism to teenage carelessness and invincibility to repentance to more carelessness to acceptance and reflection. I live a whole other lifetime when I read this book.

Lee Smith chose to have Ivy write in our southern Appalachian dialect and she gets it just absolutely perfect. I literally "hear" Ivy with my grandmother's voice, and I hear the the preacher Sam Russell Sage as my uncle. Ivy's sister Silvaney doesn't really speak, but she reminds me of my grandmother's sister, Sue. Do you see the connection I make to this book?

It might be a little hard to read at first because Ivy's letters are full of childish mistakes and she spells our dialect phonetically, but don't be put off by that. It gets better and I think you'll understand it anyway. But for a story about a woman who makes her share of mistakes, but lives a life worth living, pick this one up. I think you'll enjoy it. And if you happen to be from the southern Appalachians, I think you'll feel the same strong connection I do. This book has a permanent place in my heart and soul.
Profile Image for Lyn.
94 reviews1 follower
October 21, 2009
I think that maybe I love Ivy Rowe more than any character I've read. The reader meets Ivy as a child and grows old with her. She's a natural-born writer, so the story is told in epistolary style through the letters Ivy is forever writing to her friends and family. Ivy believes she yearns to see the world, but as her life progresses and she has opportunities to escape the poverty of her Appalachian upbringing, she discovers that the pull of home and family are stronger than that of travel and adventure. Her life is hard; the story could be depressing. Instead, it is inspiring. Ivy is as wonderful a heroine as any you'll find. She's spunky, tragic, comic, observant, and I think "joie de vivre" is a great description of this character. This is Lee Smith's finest effort. The colloquialisms scattered throughout the book are charming and true-to-life. If you ever get an opportunity to see the play and hear the bluegrass songs inspired by the book, I advise you to grab it.
Profile Image for Sharon Metcalf.
722 reviews159 followers
June 23, 2020
My goodness I loved this book of epistolary fiction. Ivy Rowe, the central character, was an avid letter writer her whole life and this majestic story was told entirely via letters from Ivy to various others. It's difficult to say why I found Fair and Tender Ladies so moving - and I really did find it moving - more than once I swallowed down the lump in my throat, chin quivering as I reached for the tissues. I simply loved Ivy, she's one of those memorable characters I'm sure I'll long remember.

The story spanned her lifetime covering a wide range of topics. Foremost was her life in Virginia and I delighted in hearing her letters over all those decades. As the years rolled on she took us through the impacts of 20th century historical events - the world wars, Korean and Vietnam wars, the progression of civilization. We had front row seats as she experienced poverty, lived in a mining town. More than these things though were the relationships. Starting with her letters to a childhood friend and others to a school teacher we began to get an insight into the spirited nature of Ivy. We became familiar with the family dynamics, the siblings she adored and those she clashed with. The love she had for her parents, her grand mother and their rural life.

Author Lee Smith waved her wand and turned words on a page into a living, breathing character. Ivy was lovable. She was spirited. She was smart, book smart and ambitious, but smart in other ways too. She made human mistakes and things didn't always work out well. She fell pregnant young but would not be pressured into marrying. She raised her daughter alone at a time when this was not done. She had other relationships but eventually married her very good friend Oakley. They returned to the family home and together they raised their family. She followed her heart more than once. Like in any family, there were deaths and we grieved together with Ivy. She endured times of poverty. She stood up for her rights against those of her family.

I was not not ready to part ways with Ivy and when the end of the (audio)book forced us to say our farewells I was a blubbering mess. Similarly I'm not finished with things to say about the book but I'd encourage you to read some other reviews, there are plenty who did it so much more justice than I. In particular, thanks so much to Candi, Sara and Angela three trusted GR friends whose splendid reviews convinced me I could not do without Ivy in my life.
Profile Image for Tom Mathews.
643 reviews
March 18, 2018
Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies portrays better than any other book I have ever read, the hopes and joys, and trials and tribulations of a life spent in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. Told in epistolary style using letters written to friends and family of Ivy Rowe, a girl born at the dawn of the 20th century up Sugar Fork on Blue Star Mountain in Western Virginia. Hers is a story rich in the vibrant history of the Scots Irish settlers who carved out a tenuous foothold in the wilderness on the western fringes of a new nation, bringing with them their music, stories, folk traditions and even their love of home-made spirits.

Ivy’s story spans four wars and decades of boom and bust as first the loggers and then the coal companies take move in and then pull out once they have taken all they can. It saw the introduction of roads, automobiles, electricity, radios and countless other changes yet it remains a very insular story that tells of childhood, courtships, marriages, births and deaths, all taking place amid the never-ending struggle to make a living in a beautiful but inhospitable land.

My thanks to Miss Scarlett (Diane Barnes) and the folks at the On the Southern Literary Trail group for giving me the opportunity to read and discuss this and many other fine books. I confess that I did not intend to read this book but this stellar review by our fearless moderator, Lawyer, changed my mind. Thanks Mike, I owe you one.
In closing, Fair and Tender Ladies receives my highest recommendation. If you are wondering whether or not you should read it, stop wondering and start reading.
BTW: Those who enjoy audio recordings of their books will be very pleased with Kay Forbes’ narration although you will miss out on a lot of Ivy’s creative spelling.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,707 reviews325 followers
July 26, 2020
Ivy Rowe is born around the beginning of the 20th century in the mountain cabin where her parents have settled. She is in the middle of a pack of eight children and we learn about her life through the letters she writes, beginning at age 12 to a pen pal in Holland, or to her teacher, and continuing through her long life as she writes to her friends and family over the decades.

What a marvelous character! Ivy is curious and adventurous, intelligent if lacking education, forthright, determined, and self-reliant. She makes mistakes and deals with them. She finds love in the wrong places and then with a good man. She observes the workings of the world as it changes around her but remains true to her tiny corner and her mountain ways. She raises children – her own, her neighbor’s, her grandkids. She helps her neighbors, advises her siblings, dares to dream big, and resolves to live well and true to herself. And through it all she writes these wonderful letters, full of all the emotions of life – joy, despair, hope, dejection, enthusiasm, resignation and love, always love.

The landscape is vividly portrayed and practically a character. I’ve driven through some of these mountain areas in Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina, but even if I had never seen them with my own eyes, I think I would have a clear picture in my head based on Smith’s descriptions. I could hear the bees buzzing, smell the fragrance of a summer meadow, feel the leaves crunch underfoot on an autumn afternoon, or smell the smoke from a chimney fire welcoming me home on a cold winter evening.

Smith also uses a vernacular dialect throughout. However, Ivy’s language (and spelling) improve as she grows from a 12-year-old with limited education to a grown woman who loves to read. There were a few times when I really had to stop to think before I could puzzle out what a word was. For example, Ivy mentions “hunting sang” and continues writing about “sang” … and it wasn’t until she mentioned that it’s only the root, “which looks like a headless man” that I finally realized that she was talking about ginseng. Still, I really enjoyed the colloquialisms Smith used, which gave a definite Southern flavor to the text.
Profile Image for Camie.
883 reviews187 followers
March 10, 2018
A delightful and thought provoking novel about the life and times of feisty Ivy Rowe as told in personal letters written from her early childhood to old age. Hailing from Sugarfork Farm in the mountains of Virginia she imparts a lot of life lessons from having lived as a strong, sometimes unconventional, woman who followed a life path predominately dictated by her own conscience. A book republished 3 times since it's first printing in 1988, and one that really needs to be rediscovered !!
Read for On The Southern Literary Trail 3/18
5 stars
Profile Image for Carmel Hanes.
Author 1 book127 followers
June 22, 2022
4.5 rounded up.

This audio listen felt like fresh spring water on a sweltering day. It went down easy and left a sweet aftertaste on my tongue. A great narration of an immersive story.

One perspective, told through letters to family, friends and acquaintances, we live Ivy's life with her as it shuffles by, hitting on important milestones and filling in the gaps with her reflections. From eager dreams and hopes, to resignation and acceptance when events take a turn, to building something from nothing, we get to know Ivy for the strong, determined woman she was, and we get to know the places she lands and how they impacted her over a lifetime. As with all lifetimes, there is wonder, joy, heartache, loss, grief, learning, sacrifice and a willingness to "live in the bed she made". And there is adapting to an ever-changing world around us.

I enjoyed spending quality time with Miss Ivy Rowe.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
463 reviews581 followers
October 16, 2013
I borrowed this book from the library of the mountain town where Lee Smith grew up--my first library book in quite a while. There I was, on my first trip to the library, wandering aisles and I ran across sectioned-off areas with Lee Smith's works. But of course. And I finished this book in one sitting.

Oh, Ivy Rowe--what a fascinating character. She is raised in the hollers of the mountains by a father who is too sick to work, and a mother who gave up a comfortable life to raise a family. At the onset, her father is dying, her mother is depressed, and her sister is dealing with mental issues. There is a farm that the women and children must run. Ivy wants to go to school but she can't--she must stay home to help on the farm. Luckily, a teacher mentors her and through her fascination with books, she learns to read and write. Hence the letter writing in the book.

At first glance, you're caught off track because the book is in letter form, as Ivy is writing to a pen-pal, to a teacher, and later to her sister who is taken off to a mental ward. The book starts with young Ivy and ends with an older Ivy who has by then, exchanged letters with family members as they move through different stages in life, so you learn the story through letter exchanges.

It is moving and melancholic. There is a lot of drama as you learn of marriage, divorce, affairs, illness, and a mine tragedy that brings with it a surprising twist midway in the book. Set against the backdrop of a coal-mining town deep in the mountains, the narrative is scenic and at times lyrical. Lee Smith really writes about southwestern Virginia with grace and authenticity. Written in the dialect of the area though, it may be a bit confusing at first, with words like 'once' for example, written as oncet:

I heard them guns popping all threw the hills and then I knowed it was Christmas wich I had clean forgot. All the rest of them was sleeping in the house. ETHEL I hollered, and direckly she come, wearing Daddys dead mommas old coat, she looked so funny I liked to of died. Get the gun I hollered, and whilst she was doing it I layed rigt down in the snow and made angels, I must of made a thousand angels but I never got wet, that snow was as dry as powder.


4.5 stars
Profile Image for Mmars.
525 reviews93 followers
December 19, 2014
Really 4.5 stars.

A couple years ago I fell in love with Lee Smith’s Appalachian storytelling in Oral History. I have finally returned to her with “Fair and Tender Ladies”. The book is penned by Ivy Rowe in letters to various friends and relatives, beginning with her preteen years during the WWI era. She loves to read but has not yet developed her spelling skills, so the first 70 pages or so took a bit longer to read as I ciphered out her words and many colloquialisms. But from the get go Ivy is one spirited and attractive red-head. She also has a huge heart and an overactive memory. Her family lives isolated on Sugar Mountain and her father is ill and passes away, leaving her mother struggling to manage their farm, and often relying on the kindness of relatives and neighbors to put food on the table.

Eventually her mother moves in with a friend in town and Ivy gets a “room” of her own. After her mother passes away when Ivy is 18, she goes to live with one of her older sisters in a mining town. I appreciated that Smith chose to add this mining community in her book. The societal strata and living conditions here post-WWI was informative and interesting.

After a mining disaster, Ivy marries and returns to Sugar Mountain for the rest of her life. I really don’t want to say more about the story, because there would spoilers and I’ve probably spoiled enough already.

I’m not a big fan of epistolary novels, but I loved this one. I think it’s easy to get bogged down by the mundane or the letters get repetitious, or are terse, or only skim the surface and are unable to give the reader the whole picture. None of that applies here. Ivy writes to many people and shares what she believes would be of interest to them. She gives advice. She tells great stories (Smith’s forte). And, she bares her soul and tells all to Silvaney, her disturbed sister placed in an asylum in the early part of the book. Interestingly, there are no love letters, though she was “ruint” at a young age and had flings, but she has a good marriage with a warm, caring husband.

I’ve taken a half-star away feeling that the late-life letters were spaced father apart. I would have liked more depth to her aging process. Perhaps this is realistic, though. As people age, it is not at all unusual to become more insular and have fewer close relationships.

Highly recommended slice of life in Virginia’s Appalachian mountains covering a large swath of the 20th century
Profile Image for Annie.
297 reviews49 followers
January 9, 2018
Well, my winning streak is over. I thought I would really like this because of what I thought it would be about and because it got good reviews overall, which really mystifies me. This novel starts out in the 30s in the Appalachian Mountains. I expected that I would read about a heartwarming community of mountain people who had it rough but helped each other through the tough times. I have to admit that I only got a third of the way through this. I never connected to the main character like I had hoped, and I could tell that it was only going to get worse. So many of the women in this story act in a way that I wouldn't have imagined women in the 30s to act like. The number of incidents of women getting knocked up, committing adultery (including one that comes as a big shock), and acting hypersexual by having sex with anyone anywhere is really high. Since I decided to stop reading, I read some of the reviews of the 1 to 3 stars, and I'm glad that I decided to stop. The main character makes some decisions that are damaging to others and doesn't seem to have remorse. I'm so turned off that even though I have another book by this author on my bookshelf, I'm not going to try it. On to something hopefully a lot better.
Profile Image for L.K. Simonds.
Author 2 books299 followers
April 28, 2018
Ivy Rowe is one of the great characters in American literature. She's smart, ambitious, and beautiful. She's feisty as all get out and liable to do anything, not to mention she's ruint. Ivy is a Virginia mountain girl through and through. We discover her story and the stories of those she loves and those she doesn't through the letters Ivy writes to family and friends over much of her life.

The New York Times called "Fair and Tender Ladies" Lee Smith's most fully realized novel to date (1988), and they got that right. Not only is Ivy fully realized, but the people of the Appalachian Mountains and the changes that fell upon them during the 20th century are too.

This is an under-read, must-read American classic, in my opinion, and more of Lee Smith's work has risen to the top of my to-read stack because of it. Thank you, Southern Literary Trail members, for introducing me to this novel. I listened to the Audible version, and Kate Forbes' narration was absolutely mesmerizing. I highly recommend this edition of the work. Ms. Forbes' narrates "If the Creek Don't Rise" too, which I'm adding to my Audible list.
Profile Image for Ann☕.
281 reviews
September 27, 2021
Having read and enjoyed two other books by Lee Smith, Fair and Tender Ladies almost seemed like a sure thing with the high reviewer ratings on Goodreads.

I thought the writing and historical aspects of rural living in Appalachia was well crafted. Even though the characters were fictional, I am guessing there was more truth to the story than not. The story was told from the perspective of Ivy Rowe in the form of letters to friends and family. I enjoyed the epistolary format. The errors in grammar and spelling that were purposely inserted into the letters (which improved as Ivy became older) did not bother me.

This was a dark story though, with late 19th century and early 20th century rural living portrayed in it's grittiest form. There were a few rays of sunshine in the book, when Ivy actually felt momentary joy or soaked in the beauty of nature, which Lee Smith also depicts well. I think I didn't completely connect with this story, as for the most part Ivy comes across as incredibly selfish and "contrary," even as she ages. Ivy was described as being beautiful, which either brought her grief or gave her opportunities, which she usually passed up for various odd reasons. Overall, Ivy wasn't especially likable and most of the letters she wrote were a form of therapy for her, versus being a form of information or entertainment for the recipient. I did feel sympathy for Ivy's situation and her longing for a better life or wondering what might of been. Having said that, I also kept waiting for Ivy to grow up and stop letting her emotions (or every handsome man that looked her way) quickly lure her into making incredibly poor decisions.

The plethora of societal issues inserted into the story, including infidelity, poverty, incest, criminal activity, hidden LBGTQ lifestyles and hypocrisy in religion, just became overwhelming. Most of the characters were portrayed as neurotic or "simple," which is how Ivy sometimes described family or friends in her letters. Not meaning the author should have ignored these issues, but maybe dialed back the constant drama a little. Perhaps this just wasn't the right time for me to soak in and fully appreciate the author's message, especially with the ongoing pandemic and the frustration those of us with critical thinking skills, are continuing to experience with certain members of our society.

This is a story many readers of historical fiction would probably appreciate, though I had mixed feelings about it and difficulty deciding on a rating. Out of fairness to the author, I settled on 3.5 stars and round it up to 4.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Tina .
569 reviews28 followers
April 29, 2018
This is a book of letters. The main character and letter writer, Ivy Rowe, was a poor Appalachian girl who began writing letters to her teacher about her life and family. Ivy had very little schooling, like most of the people in her community, but she possessed a fierce desire to learn. Through her letters to family and friends, we watch Ivy grow. We experience her hardships. Feel her grief. Learn of her mistakes and her triumphs. Especially in Ivy’s letters to her sister Silvany where Ivy bared her heart and soul.

Fair and Tender Ladies might go down as one of my favorite Appalachian stories. Easy to read, but hard to put aside. I love the lost art of letter writing. This format is beautifully done, to say the least. I’m not sure why I waited so long to read this one and I’m sure I’m going to read it again. If you know me, I don’t hand out five star ratings often. Lee Smith’s book of letters from Ivy Rowe is worthy. Worthy indeed.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 738 reviews

Join the discussion

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.