I first heard of author Lee Smith while attending Calvin College's "Festival of Faith and Writing" last spring. I fell in love with the excerpts of short stories she read. Often erroneously compared with Flannery O'Connor (Christian, Southerner, female, sometimes bad things happen in her stories), Lee Smith is a vital force and great talent in her own right. For others unfamiliar with her work, her latest novel, Saving Grace, is a great place to start.
Named for the state she was born in, the grace of God, and her wayward-wandering preacher-daddy, Florida Grace Shepherd promises to tell us the truth of her life sparing us "not even the part about Lamar nor how Mama died nor the true nature of Travis Word nor what transpired between me and Randy Newhouse." She is as good as her word.
That Saving Grace, Lee Smith's ninth novel, reads as autobiography, despite some obviously fictive quirks, is testament to its strength. This is a work of consummate skill and all-too-human warmth. Smith's is a world populated by very real, very flawed people. It is a world in which grace is strangely abundant, and reconciliation, if not redemption, is a genuine possibility.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the character of Florida Grace herself, one of the most complete protagonists in contemporary literature. As she wrestles with her sense of self, sexuality, family loyalties, and the all-encompassing struggle with the role of religion in her life, Florida Grace tugs us along on her very personal odyssey with all the gentle irresistibility of a gulf tide. From the little Holiness girl who hates Jesus because he "made us take up travelling in His name, living with strangers and in tents and old school buses" to the middle-aged grandmother and "fallen" woman who finally returns to the little town of Scrabble Creek, North Carolina, to find the truth of her experiences, she remains an entirely sympathetic character.
Names in this novel are of great importance, symbolic of role and indicative of character. The charismatic (pun intended) preacher's family name is Shepherd. The childless couple who give the Shepherds their first (and only) permanent home, donate the land for the new church, and become its mainstays, are Carlton and Ruth Duty. When Florida eventually marries, it is to the Rev. Word, a serious and reticent man; and when the time comes for her to take a lover, he is Randy Newhouse, with whom she moves into a trailer park. The Rev. Virgil Shepherd calls his church "the Jesus Name Church of God" and baptizes in the name of Jesus rather than Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, "for those were not names he said." (Clearly a deliberate conceit on Smith's part, this by no means feels contrived and, in fact, is yet another of the carefully chosen details that make the book such a delight.)
FOR ALL THE BLEAKNESS and pain of much of the book's contentincest, suicide, betrayal, infidelity, and despairing rage against Godthis is a delightful novel. Smith writes with an assured lightness of touch. There is a good deal of humor in Saving Grace, most in the manner of the tale's telling.
Lee Smith allows her characters to speak for themselves, denying them the easy succor of pat answers. Characters are introduced as they enter Florida's sphere and vanish as she moves on, recurring only in memory or reunion. Nobody exists outside of her experience; there is no omniscient author or dispassionate narrative voice. This is brought home by her inability to accept changes she has not witnessed in the lives of her family and friends. Because Florida doesn't see them, neither do we.
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the book is in the revelation of the true nature of Rev. Virgil Shepherd. Events prove him to be a dishonest, manipulative philanderer, more interested in his own glorification than in anything else. That his abuse and neglect of his family is excused as following "the will of God" makes it all the harder to bear.
The tension most clearly portrayed is that despite Virgil's sinfulness, he is still periodically "anointed" to perform miracles. He handles snakes, drinks poison, heals, saves souls, and apparently on one occasion even raises someone from the dead. In other words, despite the fact that he lacks integrity and has debased his gifts and position in pursuing fame and notoriety, God still uses him. Even though he fathers 11 children by three wives and drives the third of them to nervous collapse and suicide, he is still a vessel of, and conduit for, gracesaving grace.
Unfortunately, I had to read Saving Grace quickly in order to write this review. Then I had to wrest it from my mother's grasp in order to get the quotations right. (She loved it too.) As soon as this review has been safely dispatched, I'm going to re-read it, slowly, for the third time, so I can savor it more fully. It's worth it.
If that isn't a recommendation, then I don't know what is.
Review of Saving Grace. By Lee Smith. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.
RICHARD VERNON is a former Sojourners intern. After spending two years with Sojourners, he now lives in Scotland.