Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lee Smith--Oral History (1983)

Smith’s third novel, it’s an ambitious novel of multiple points of view which interweave to tell the story of the Cantrell family, a story that spans the better part of a century. The Cantrells are a mountain family who inhabit the hills and environs of Hoot Owl Holler. Jennifer, a citified descendant of the Cantrells, arrives to record an "oral history" of her family for a college course, and all the old stories unscroll. But Oral History is finally the story of Dory, a lovely enigmatic woman who the many narrators attempt--through the telling of her story--to understand.  Within the frame story of Jennifer coming to Hoot Owl Holler to meet her relatives as part of an oral history project for a college class, Jennifer is told the family’s story starting with Almarine Cantrell, born in 1876.  Almarine, whose parents were from Ireland, fought for the Union army during the Civil War.  He falls in love (or is bewitched, depending on the storyteller) with the enigmatic Red Emmy, though he is married to Pricey Jane, with whom he will bear Dory, the equally enigmatic center of the family stories. 
Red Emmy is considered a witch by many, and Pricey Jane herself is from a gypsy family, the source of the gold earrings which become a cursed heirloom for her female heirs.  There are other women in the novel who claim or are seen as having various kinds of supernatural powers, from Granny Younger’s healing abilities to Jink Cantrell’s sense of sight.  There is a very strong sense of spirituality to the novel connected to Appalachia, a spirituality which is primarily a female, nature-based, healing one.  The spiritual is linked to the sexual and to music; these form the primary themes of the novel, which are explored through complex layers of narrative which include multiple voices from multiple points in time.  At the heart of the novel is the problem of desire: is it worth it to pursue desire if it has unhappiness built into it?
Even the wind itself has voices in it, which add to the family’s history.  By calling the novel Oral History, and by allowing the story to unfold in such a complex way, Smith calls attention to the very nature of history and stories, foregrounding the unreliability of narrative while she foregrounds the centrality of relationships (specifically, family relationships, but also non-familial ones)—and, ultimately, love—to history.

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