1995. Ballantine. Paperback. 291 pages.
[Cover shown is of a different edition]
This is the fourth book I have read by Lee Smith. Generally, I am not diligent about going through the backlist of authors, but Lee Smith’s storytelling abilities have given me confidence that no matter what I pick up of hers, I will be in good hands.
Saving Grace is the story of Florida Grace Shepherd, daughter of a snake-handling itinerant preacher named Virgil Shepherd. Florida’s mother had been a dancing girl in Atlanta, with three children already from a previous marriage, when she met and married Virgil. The story gets its proper start when the family’s car breaks down in the Appalachian region of North Carolina and Virgil takes it as a sign that he should take up his ministry there, up by a place called Scrabble Creek.
In Saving Grace, as with her earlier books, Lee Smith just nails it when it comes to capturing her main character’s years of girlhood. Through Florida Grace’s eyes of credulity, the world is filled with many wonders: her father handles snakes and drinks poison at his tent meetings and once she sees a little girl raised back to life in her family’s kitchen. But Florida also is wary of her father’s religion, and fears that her father will die of snakebite. She tries to establish a normal childhood at school, and covets the life of her best friend Marie. At Marie’s house, the two girls create elaborate horse stories and drink Coca-Colas while watching the television.
These early years are filled with an evocative timelessness. Though various references vaguely place the story in the mid-20th century, it is not until Florida’s engagement to a man in Tennessee that a specific date is mentioned, a date that demarcates between her childhood and her life as a wife and mother.
Florida Grace remains likable throughout the book, though it is no surprise that her parents’ neglect of her as a child leads to an ill-advised marriage and other unwise choices as an adult. I was sorry at first to leave Florida’s childhood behind, as tragic as it was, and leap forward to thirty-three year old Florida, who is on the brink of another bad decision. But Smith’s writing carried me through this plot turn. (Side note: I like how Smith lets her characters be of their time and place, with all the tastes and opinions you would expect of someone in that era.)
As with the other books I’ve read by Smith (and I don’t consider this a spoiler), the book ends with her protagonist returning to her home place, Scrabble Creek. I found the ending to be fitting, except for its abrupt switch into stream-of-consciousness narrative. In an interview included in this edition, Lee Smith said that Florida’s choice at the end of the book was not one that Smith personally wanted for her character, but it seemed the likely decision that Florida would make.
Seeing as how I have mentioned Smith’s writing a number of times, it seems like I should include an excerpt.
People in the Spirit will often act like children – laughing out loud, giggling, patting their feet or clapping, sometimes talking baby talk. I saw old Mrs. Duke Watson, who had to be almost carried into meeting whenever she came, get up and dance the hula. I saw Lily’s mama get up and throw her new baby at the nearest woman she could find, then grasp a copperhead in each hand. I saw my own sister Evelyn dance right down the aisle with a yellow rattler, popping her gum and grinning. Later, she wouldn’t talk about it much. “You do it, Sissy,” she said. “Then you’ll see.”
But I had never been anointed and prayed that I never would be.
I always sat way in the back with Lily, watching what all went on. We played tic-tac-toe on a little pad of paper when things got boring. A lot of the time I got to stay home and keep Troy Lee anyway. Meeting was not really the place for children. God would send for you when He was ready for you.
Excerpts from other’s reviews (all three were culled from Goodreads, as I couldn’t seem to find other book blog reviews):
Lenore – “It’s a book about spirituality and frailty, about how our beliefs shape us and affect our decisions, but it’s also a loving portrait of rural life in the South, told by Grace in an uneducated but compelling narrative. I could almost hear the soft drawl in her speech.”
Sassy – “I love that Lee Smith will write about a character like Gracie and not try to “class her up” so that her tastes or beliefs or thought processes will be socially acceptable for readers who have more money/education/experience. She just is who she is, and she’s probably not like you, the reader, but you will love her and root for her and ache with her anyway.” [This what I was trying to say in my review’s paranthetical side note, but Sassy says it much better.]
Vivian – “The first part of the book was interesting up until Grace leaves home. After that, it seemed to move like a run away train. Grownup Grace almost seemed like a totally different character . . . There were also too many absurd characters introduced. The book just seemed to transform from a rural southern bittersweet story into a bizarre twisted Lifetime movie.”