Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lucy Furman--The Quare Women: A Story of the Kentucky Mountains (1923)

I finally read all of this novel with the intriguing title.  The "Quare Women" of the title refers to the "passel of quare women come in from furrin parts," settlement workers who come to the remote mountain town of Troublesome to teach basic skills, cooking, hygiene, as well as arts and crafts.  The novel includes points of view of both the locals as well as the outsiders, though the "locals" are made distinct through their dialects.  (Surely, women from "level country" of Kentucky would have some sort of dialect as well.)

The novel is based on Furman's own experiences with the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky.  What I most appreciated about the novel was that it didn't blame the mountaineers troubles--violence and poor health being two of the primary ones--on some sort of innate character, but on its isolation and lack of education.  Uncle Ephraim, the town elder, gives a speech to that effect, explaining that when their ancestors settled there, they were educated people-but over time, as their isolation led to less and less education and contact with the progress of the outside world, the new generations were more prone to violence, to excess drinking, and to needless death from illness.  Though there is resistance at first, even the most adamantly opposed to the outside influences, such as Uncle Lot, for example.  Lot is sure that they're an example of the kind of "strange women" warned against in the Bible by Solomon: "The lips of a strange woman drop honey, and her mouth is smoother than butter; yea, the furrin woman is a norow pit, and they that are abhorred of the Lord shall fall therein'" (24).  Eventually, however, even Uncle Lot admits that theirs is a beneficial influence, as not only do they bring medicine to treat typhoid, but the activities they bring have such a good influence that they bring a truce to the long-running mountain feud.

Though they are "quare," these women are not unattractive.  In fact, part of what makes them "quare" is the fact that they are are so pretty and yet unmarried, some of them nearing thirty.  As most of the mountain women are married and procreating by the age of 15, to be unmarried and 28 is unheard of.  However, the mountain women who do marry young have difficult lives, which is reflected in their faces.  Cynthy, for example, looks older than her mother Ailsie: "Cynthy's face being so lined and drawn from the troubles she had had as Fighting Fult's wife and widow" (46).  People's visages reflect their home and geography.  As Isabel rides the train further and further into the mountains, she observes that, "The progressive change in the people who got into and off the train all along the way was as striking as the changing topography.  It was hard to believe that all could belong to the same state" (64).

It felt almost like cheating to read such a straight-ahead narrative as the novel from 1923. Part of the experience was simply the aesthetic experience of reading such a beautiful book:

I was expecting the quare women to be uglier, to reflect the southern idea that ugliness is a sign of intellectualness.  Instead, this book is more suitable for my chapter on ugliness as "history marked on the body."  A fun read, despite the dialect.

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