Letters used to be gifts, rare and wonderful things. They came, hand-addressed, through the mail and you were supposed to answer them promptly. (I know because I rarely did.) A good letter might remind you of the writer through the distinctive handwriting or the stationary he/she chose but the the act of writing letter was most important: it meant the reader was meant so much to the writer that he/she was invited into a direct channel of the writer’s thoughts and feelings. From personal letters, we went to electronic mail which was quicker and easier as long as you knew how to type and you could, if necessary, address it to many people at once. After than came social media sites with ever-shortening messages to wider and wider groups of people and now we communicate by emojis, sharing news and opinions so quickly, we’re back to communicating through pictures. That’s progress and I’m thrilled because I’ve managed to reconnect with friends I’ve owed letters to for decades but there’s something missing in our e-correspondence that was present in in the old-fashioned letters. My mother, aunts and grandmothers could mark the stages of their lives with their correspondence. That’s what Lee Smith must have been thinking of when she wrote Fair and Tender Ladies.
Here is the tale of Ivy Rowe, in her voice and captured in a lifetime of letters. The early ones are the greetings of an precocious and engaging child from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to a world she’s already longing to see. Life is hard for those who live on the Blue Ridge at the beginning of the twentieth century but Ivy sees the beauty in the land and the people as clearly as the hard-scrabble existence that takes so much of their happiness. You can trace the changing fortunes of the Appalachian folk through Ivy’s letters. They descend from the “hollers” and mountain cabins to the river towns of Virginia and then to the coal mines with their promise of greater income and danger for the men who tear the ore from the mountain. Ivy sees first-hand the wealth of a mine owner’s mansion and the poverty of devastated families of the miners killed in an explosion. Ivy returns to the Blue Ridge mountains to face the good and bad parts of being grown, of making mistakes and getting old. She watches electricity and the modern world make their way to the mountains and how they change the rhythm of isolated lives. She even learns to accept some of the values her parents had and then lost. All of this is recounted in hundreds of letters to strangers and friends, loving family and long-lost relatives. While Ivy’s early dreams of being a writer and seeing the world can only be fulfilled by her daughter, Ivy points the way with her clear-eyed appraisal of life and her never-ending letters
Ivy speculates that, in the end, the collection of recorded letters don’t matter to the writer or to the recipient as much as the act of writing them does. I’m not sure if I agree since this book (among many others) would not exist if written letters weren’t kept. But she is right about one thing: the act of writing is what makes the document meaningful. It is the act that says,”I open my mind and soul to you so you know the real, inner me. Here, I will do my best to capture and transcribe the truth.” That act, whether it’s done with parchment, paper or pixels is a generous, difficult one and one of the things that distinguishes our species. We communicate through words and the words, once we release them, expand the universe with our ideas. Our time here is short but when we leave, the words remain.