Oral History [NOOK Book]


From the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of The Last Girls.

The author of Fair and Tender Ladies merges reality, superstition, and legend in this Appalachian odyssey about a strange family whose tragedies and star-crossed love affairs lead them to believe they're cursed. An earlier triumph for the author of ...

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Oral History

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From the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of The Last Girls.

The author of Fair and Tender Ladies merges reality, superstition, and legend in this Appalachian odyssey about a strange family whose tragedies and star-crossed love affairs lead them to believe they're cursed. An earlier triumph for the author of The Devil's Dream.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101565612
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 12/6/2011
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 158,572
  • File size: 346 KB

Meet the Author

Lee Smith was born in Virginia. She is the author of ten novels and four story collections. She lives in North Carolina and Maine.
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Reading Group Guide

"Delightful and entertaining."


When Jennifer, a college student, returns to her childhood home of Hoot Owl Holler with a tape recorder, the tales of murder and suicide, incest and blood ties, bring to life a vibrant story of a doomed family that still refuses to give up....

"Deft and assured....[Lee Smith] is nothing less than masterly."


From the Paperback edition.

1. ORAL HISTORY begins as a third person narrative, told from the viewpoint of a modern college co-ed, Jennifer.  Why does Lee Smith frame the novel in this manner?  How is it an effective narrative technique?

2. How does the novel function as an actual oral history?  What are the effects of a shifting narrative voice and perspective?  Through form, content and style, how does Smith make each voice distinctive?

3. The major stories of ORAL HISTORY center on Almarine, Dory and Pearl.  Why are their stories told from the vantage points of others?  Does this make their tales more or less effective?  Why?

4. In which ways do superstition and natural magic form a foundation of belief in ORAL HISTORY?   What are some examples of events in the novel where spells are used to explain both good events and evil occurrences?   Is weather ever personified as a force of good or of evil?  How?

5. In the beginning of the novel, how does Smith depict young Almarine?  What is his family life like?  Why does he value Hoot Owl Holler so much?  How does his life change after he becomes determined to find a girl, at Granny Younger's request?

6. How doesGranny Younger provide guidance to those around her?  What about her character inspires respect?  In which ways does she serve as the matriarch of the community around her?  After Granny's death, how does Rhoda Hibbitts take her place as the bedrock of the community? 

7. What about Emmy so mesmerizes Almarine?  What attracts Emmy to him?  How does she adjust her life at first to be a suitable wife to him?  What about her causes others fear and consternation?  Why, ultimately, does Almarine force her to leave, and why does that cause him such pain?

8. How does Almarine meet his second wife, Pricey Jane?  How is she different from Emmy?  In which ways is she a "girl like a summer day," as Granny Younger says (page 63)?    What is her relationship with Almarine like?  How is the story of their marriage, and its untimely end, reminiscent of folklore or a fairy tale?

9. Almarine's son, Eli, and Pricey Jane die unexpectedly.  What practical reasons can explain their deaths?  Why do others blame Red Emmy for it?   How does Almarine change after Eli and Pricey Jane's death?  What prompts Almarine to then form a relationship with Vashti?

10. How does Almarine change as he grows older?  Which of his positive traits harden into negative ones?  What actions lead to his death, and how does his family react to it?  Does his murder prompt the unraveling of his family?  How?

11. Who are the women in ORAL HISTORY who most captivate those around them?  Do these women share any characteristics in common?  In your opinion, who comes the closest to finding true love?  Who is the most miserable?  Why?

12. How does the character of Richard Burlage compare and contrast to the individuals you meet in the first section of ORAL HISTORY?  How is his journal different in terms of content, style and awareness? 

13. What motivations-both selfish and unselfish-propel Richard to travel from his privileged home to teach school in Appalachia?  How does his family, particularly his brother, react to that decision? How does his life of privilege inform his perceptions of those he meets?  What are his attitudes toward his new students and their families?

14. Why does Richard take special note of Jink Cantrell?  How does Jink react to Richard's special attention, and why does Richard give it to him?  How does Richard's attitude toward Jink change after Dory enters the picture?  What does Jink think about Richard after he's gone?  Why does Jink save the orange that Richard has given him?  What does it represent to Jink?

15. In which ways does Dory intrigue Richard?  What does the schoolteacher represent to her?  How is the relationship realistic, and in which ways is it rooted in fantasy?  Do you think that Dory ever intends to leave her home?   Why or why not?

16. Ora Mae not only conceals from Dory the love letter that Richard has written, but also tells him Dory never wants to see him again.  Why does she do this?  What effect does this deceit have on Dory and Richard individually, and on their relationship?  What does that action say about Ora Mae's concept of choice, particularly as it pertains to her half-sister?

17. How does Dory change after she is "ruint," marries Little Luther and becomes a mother?   Why does she leave and wander about without giving any warning?  What is the reaction of her children to her behavior?  How does Little Luther react?  What do you think Dory was searching for?  Does she ever find it?

18. When Parrot asks Ora Mae if she feels a thing, she replies, "Nope."  How true is this assertion?  Why is Ora Mae closed up emotionally?  How do her circumstances of arrival into the Cantrell family contribute to that attitude?  Who else in the novel shares the same emotional ambivalence?

19. Ora Mae views herself as the emotional and physical center of the Cantrell family.  Why does she feel this way?  Do others share her view?  How is Ora Mae a good mother, and in what ways is she lacking as a parent and a role model?  How is her conception of motherhood different from Dory's?

20. "Things was not clear in my mind before Parrot," Ora Mae discloses (page 212).  What "things" does Parrot clarify for her?  Do other women in the story experience a similar turning point after the attentions of a man in their life?  Which ones?

21. What does Ora Mae's self-professed ability to see the future affect her?  How does it influence her decisions in life, from the time that she was a child to her decisions about marriage and beyond?  How is this ability to tell the future itself a form of curse?  Do other figures in this novel also believe that they have this ability?  Who are they?

22. Which reasons-both public and private-prompt Richard to return to Appalachia?  In which ways are Richard's manifestations of wealth and success, important to him?  What effect do they have on the people he sees in Appalachia?  Why doesn't he speak to Dory, instead taking a picture of her?  What events do you imagine are most important in Richard's autobiography (published to "universal but somewhat limited acclaim" (p. 285) )? 

23. Why are Dory's earrings such a coveted keepsake?  Why is it appropriate that Maggie receives them?  Why is Pearl resentful of that?  In which ways does Pearl attempt to be different from an early age?  What are the reasons behind this behavior? 

24. Why does Pearl take Sally into her confidence?  What reaction does Sally have to her sister's newfound trust in her?  Why does Pearl embark upon a relationship with Donnie Osborne? What are the consequences that result, both for Pearl and her family, and for Donnie himself?

25. Is Little Luther's son Almarine in any way like his namesake?  How?  How do the two men differ?

26. "Life is a mystery and that's a fact," says Sally (page 275).  How does this statement represent a theme that threads throughout the novel?  What mysteries remain unexplainable in the book?  Who searches for answers to these enigmas?

27. The prologue and epilogue of ORAL HISTORY appear in italics.  Why does Smith set these parts of the book apart?   Do you believe that the last part of the novel is real, or imagined in Jennifer's mind?  Why do you feel this way?

28. In your opinion, does the adage "blood is thicker than water" apply to this book?  Why or why not?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2008

    I loved it!!!

    This dark and twisted story included precise details needed to shed light into small town, poverty stricken life in the mountains of appalachia. This story sucked me in and I couldn't part from it until I was done, and even then, I carried it around in my mind.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 8, 2010

    Wonderful narrative fiction

    Oral History tells the story of multiple generations of the Cantrell family through one or more voices of each generation. The story is plain, gripping, and evocative.

    Lee Smith's words open a view of Appalachia with the surprising honesty of her character Richard Burlage's photographs. "They were quite a shock to me, validating somehow my theory of photography if not life itself: the way a frame, a photograph, can illumine and enlarge one's vision rather than limit it." (223) The mind's eye often allows us to ignore what we don't want to be know, in the same manner that Richard ignored the deforestation and damage caused by mining when he was part of the community. He noted, "Nothing had been done with thought or care of consequence, I noted - lumber tripped and the land left, machine parts everywhere rusting, trash and refuse out in the yards in from of the homes, if you could call them that, and children - children everywhere, ragged and dirty, in the road and in the filthy bare yards along it...I had never seen anything like it. The lumber companies had stripped the timber out all the way up the mountain, on both sides of the holler. They were doing it, I recalled, logging this holler, even while I was here...somehow I had thought nothing of it at the time, which caused me to wonder what else I might have missed!" (224) Smith on the other hand scripted every line with care. Anyone who has spent time in that region of the country will recognize the vernacular and the imagery.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2010

    Oral History by Lee Smith

    "Oral History" is a novel written by American author Lee Smith, published in 1983 by G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York. Later editions of the novel have been published by Ballentine Books in 1984, and again in 1993. The story is about the lives of the Cantrell family, who live in the mountains of Hoot Owl Holler. Through this family, Smith tells the story of her community in Virginia, a story written by a Southerner in the language of Southerners. This work of fiction is considered to be an authentic representation of the voice of the people of Appalachia, a specific region in the southern mountain region of the United States. As Smith grew up in the mountain region of southwestern Virginia, she, through her writing, gives her audience a view of this insular society, with a particular culture that is unique in America.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2010

    Delightful and Addicting

    I am truly loved digging into this brilliantly complicated and addicting novel.When I read Oral History, I felt like I was sitting on the porch with my mamaw listening to her tell me about the neighbors. Smith's voice is the most genuine "country" vernacular I've read. Thank you for a delightful read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Definitive novel about Appalachia

    This novel gives great insight into the history and culture of the once remote and isolated region of Appalachia. Lee Smith has a great voice that comes through in her characters. This book will stay with you long after you put it down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2001

    Would have been better if...

    I loved the story, but there was no need to include the foul language. The story would have been wonderful without it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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