On a beautiful June day in 1965, a dozen girls-classmates at a picturesque Blue Ridge women's college-launched their homemade raft (inspired by Huck Finn's) on a trip down the Mississippi. It's Girls A-Go-Go Down the Mississippi read the headline in the Paducah, Kentucky, paper.Thirty-five years later, four of those "girls" reunite to cruise the river again. This time it's on the luxury steamboat, The Belle of Natchez, and there's no publicity. This time, when they reach New Orleans, they'll give the river the ashes of a fifth rafter-beautiful Margaret ("Baby") Ballou.
Revered for her powerful female characters, here Lee Smith tells a brilliantly authoritative story of how college pals who grew up in an era when they were still called "girls" have negotiated life as "women." Harriet Holding is a hesitant teacher who has never married (she can't explain why, even to herself). Courtney Gray struggles to step away from her Southern Living-style life. Catherine Wilson, a sculptor, is suffocating in her happy third marriage. Anna Todd is a world-famous romance novelist escaping her own tragedies through her fiction. And finally there is Baby, the girl they come to bury-along with their memories of her rebellions and betrayals.
THE LAST GIRLS is wonderful reading. It's also wonderfully revealing of women's lives-of the idea of romance, of the relevance of past to present, of memory and desire.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)|
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The river . . . it all started with the river. How amazing that they ever did it, twelve girls, ever went down this river on that raft, how amazing that they ever thought of it in the first place.
Well, they were young. Young enough to think why not when Baby said it, and then to do it: just like that. Just like Huck Finn and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which they were reading in Mr. Gaines's Great Authors class at Mary Scott, sophomore year.
Tom Gaines was the closest thing to a hippie on the faculty at Mary Scott, the closest thing to a hippie that most of them had ever seen in 1965, since the sixties had not yet come to girls' schools in Virginia. So far, the sixties had only happened in Time magazine and on television. Life at the fairy-tale Blue Ridge campus was proceeding much as it had for decades past, with only an occasional emissary from the changing world beyond, such as somebody's longhaired folk-singing cousin from up north incongruously flailing his twelve-string guitar on the steps of the white-columned administration building. And Professor Tom Gaines, who wore jeans and work boots to class (along with the required tie and tweed sports jacket), bushy beard hiding half his face, curly reddish-brown hair falling down past his collar. Harriet was sure he'd been hired by mistake. But here he was anyway, big as life and right here on their own ancient campus among the pink brick buildings and giant oaks and long green lawns and little stone benches and urns. Girls stood in line to sign up for his classes. He is so cute, ran the consensus.
But it was more than that, Harriet realized later. Mr. Gaines was passionate. He wept in class, reading "The Dead" aloud. He clenched his fist in fury over Invisible Man, he practically acted out Absalom, Absalom, trying to make them understand it.
Unfortunately for all the students, Mr. Gaines was already married to a dark, frizzy-haired Jewish beauty who wore long tie-dyed skirts and no bra. They carried their little hippie baby, Maeve, with them everywhere in something like a knapsack except when Harriet, widely known as the most responsible English major, came to baby-sit. Now people take babies everywhere, but nobody did it then. You were supposed to stay home with your baby, but Sheila Gaines did not. She had even been seen breast-feeding Maeve publicly in Dana Auditorium, watching her husband act in a Chekov drama. He played Uncle Vanya and wore a waistcoat. They had powdered his hair and put him in little gold spectacles but nothing could obscure the fact that he was really young and actually gorgeous, a young hippie professor playing an old Russian man. Due to the extreme shortage of men at Mary Scott, Mr. Gaines was in all the plays. He was Hamlet and Stanley Kowalski. His wife breast-fed Maeve until she could talk, to everyone's revulsion. But Mr. Gaines's dramatic streak was what made his classes so wonderful. For Huck Finn, he adopted a sort of Mark Twain persona as he read aloud from the book, striding around the old high-ceilinged room with his thumbs hooked under imaginary galluses. Even this jovial approach failed to charm Harriet, who had read the famous novel once before, in childhood, but now found it disturbing not only in the questions it raised about race but also in Huck's loneliness, which Harriet had overlooked the first time through, caught up as she was in the adventure. In Mr. Gaines's class, Harriet got goosebumps all over when he read aloud:
Then I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn't no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippoorwill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn't make out what it was and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of sound that a ghost makes . . .
This passage could have been describing Harriet; it could have been describing her life right then. Mr. Gaines was saying something about Huck's "estrangement" as "existential," as "presaging the modern novel," but Harriet felt it as personal, deep in her bones. She believed it was what country people meant when they said they felt somebody walking across their grave. For even in the midst of college, here at Mary Scott where she was happier than she would ever be again, Harriet Holding continued to have these moments she'd had ever since she could remember, as a girl and as a young woman, ever since she was a child. Suddenly a stillness would come over everything, a hush, then a dimming of the light, followed by a burst of radiance during which she could see everything truly, everything, each leaf on a tree in all its distinctness and brief beauty, each hair on the top of somebody's hand, each crumb on a tablecloth, each black and inevitable marching word on a page. During these moments Harriet was aware of herself and her beating heart and the perilous world with a kind of rapture that could not be borne, really, leaving her finally with a little headache right between the eyes and a craving for chocolate and a sense of relief. She was still prone to such intensity. There was no predicting it either. You couldn't tell when these times might occur or when they would go away. Her mother used to call it "getting all wrought up." "Harriet," she often said, "you're just getting all wrought up. Calm down, honey."
But Harriet couldn't help it.
Another day Mr. Gaines read from the section where Huck and Jim are living on the river:
Sometimes we'd have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water, and maybe a spark-which was a candle in a cabin window . . . and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It's lovely to live on a raft.
His words had rung out singly, like bells, in the old classroom. Harriet could hear each one in her head. It was a cold pale day in February. Out the window, bare trees stood blackly amid the gray tatters of snow.
Then Baby had said, "I'd love to do that. Go down the Mississippi River on a raft, I mean." It was a typical response from Baby, who personalized everything, who was famous for saying, "Well, I'd never do that!" at the end of The Awakening when Edna Pontellier walks into the ocean. Baby was not capable of abstract thought. She had too much imagination. Everything was real for her, close up and personal. "We could do it, you know," Suzanne St. John spoke up. "My uncle owns a plantation right on the river, my mother was raised there. She'd know who to talk to. I'll bet we could do it if we wanted to." Next to Courtney, Suzanne St. John was the most organized girl in school, an angular forthright girl with a businesslike grown-up hairdo who ran a mail-order stationery business out of her dorm room.
"Girls, girls," Mr. Gaines had said disapprovingly. He wanted to get back to the book, he wanted to be the star. But the girls were all looking at each other. Baby's eyes were shining. "YES!" she wrote on a piece of paper, handing it to Harriet, who passed it along to Suzanne. Yes. This was Baby's response to everything.
Reading Group Guide
1. Harriet dubs the four women on the river cruise "the last girls." What does she mean by this name? How is The Last Girls an appropriate title for the novel?
2. Author Lee Smith writes The Last Girls in the third person, but devotes chapters to different, alternating points of view. What affect does this shifting narrative viewpoint have on the story? How does Smith make each narrative voice a distinctive and unique one?
3. What do the four "last girls" have in common? How has each changed since her first trip down the river? Is there one character here that forms the emotional center of the book? If so, who is it, and why?
4. How does the riverboat cruise compare with the first trip that the girls took down the river? How does Mr. Gaines, the professor that inspires the raft trip, affect them-both academically and on a personal level? What expectations do the women have on each trip? How do the two voyages each constitute a rite of passage?
5. Does The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspire the girls during the raft trip? How? Why does Mark Twain's novel achieve particular resonance during the girls' college years? How do they grapple with racial and social issues similar to those that Huck faces?
6. All of the first-year suitemates take the same creative writing class, where they meet Catherine. What motivates each of them to enroll in the class? Which ones are the most ambitious about writing, and how do they hone their craft? How do they view one another as writers?
7. The novel features excerpts of Baby's poetry and Anna's romance novels. What does the inclusion of this writing add to your understanding of both these characters? Why don't you see passages by Courtney, Catherine and Harriet? What do you imagine that their writing would be like?
8. Harriet, Catherine, Anna, Courtney and Baby each come from very different family backgrounds. In which ways do their families shape the girls' personalities? Who is more apt to rebel against her family, and who strives to make them proud? By your estimation, who is the closest at achieving a happy medium between the two?
9. The women go on the river cruise in order to dispose of Baby's ashes. How does each of the women remember Baby? What does Baby represent to each of the four "last girls?" How do they express any emotion about Baby's death?
10. What is Harriet's first impression of Baby, and how does her view of her roommate evolve during their tenure at college? In which ways is Harriet an insightful observer of her roommate? How does Baby puzzle and frustrate her?
11. How does Harriet grow and evolve during her college years? Do you think that this evolution is due to Baby's influence? What other factors prompt Harriet to change? How would you characterize the relationship between the two roommates? Do Baby and Harriet's mother, Alice, share any similarities? What are they?
12. Anna refers to the girl who entered Mary Scott College as an "earlier incarnation" of herself, a child whom she barely remembers. How does Anna invent a new personality? What characteristics of her former self does she muffle in order to do so, both during her college years and beyond? Do any of the other girls try to do the same? Do they succeed?
13. Courtney laments that she's only done "the right thing" in her life. What are some examples of this tendency? Which of the other girls might share her complaint? Which girls would be more likely characterized as "free spirits"? Were there any penalties incurred for being a "wild child"? What were they?
14. What factors, both internal and external, propel Courtney into marriage? What are her feelings about being alone? Why doesn't she leave Hawk early in her marriage, despite her threats to do so? How do Hawk, Courtney's husband, and her lover, Gene, compare to one another? What attracts her to both men?
15. Of Jeff and Baby's relationship, Harriet opines, "It was like being in love herself, but not as scary." How does this statement embody Harriet's attitude about life and love? How does it portend things to come, particularly in terms of Harriet's romantic relationships? In your opinion, why do Baby and Jeff embrace Harriet's involvement in her relationship? What role does Harriet play in it?
16. Why does Baby break up with Jeff? How does the end of the relationship affect both her and Jeff? How does Harriet react, and how does Baby and Harriet's relationship change as a result? In your opinion, did the breakup directly lead to Jeff's death? Why or why not?
17. Catherine "can't remember a time where she wasn't married, or at least where she wasn't with a man." In which ways is this characteristic of her personality? How is it uncharacteristic? During their college years, what attitudes does each of the women have about male companionship? Do these views shift with age? Do any the women adhere to the notion of "one true love?"
18. The only male figure with a voice in the book is Catherine's husband, Russ. How does he provide a unique viewpoint? In particular, what do you learn about Catherine through his perspective? Why do you think Lee Smith chose to include him in the novel?
19. Why does Anna forsake her more literary ambitions and begin to write romances? What purpose do these books serve in her life and in the lives of others around her? What attitude does she hold toward Baby and her writing ability? Toward Harriet and Harriet's writing students?
20. Courtney categorizes herself as the woman who always does what is right. How do her rules of "how to be a lady" guide her life? In which ways does she embrace their framework? How does she resent them?
21. In your opinion, does Courtney feel the same way for Gene as he does for her? Why does he force an ultimatum, and why is she unwilling to give him an answer? What does Gene represent to Courtney? Do you think that her response to Gene's demand would have been different if Hawk had not been ill? Why or why not?
22. Why do you think that Pete is attracted to Harriet? What about her is appealing to others around her, both male and female? Do you think that Harriet is persuaded to stay in New Orleans with him by the end of the novel? Why or why not?
23. Mr. Stone's death on the ship is sudden and unexpected. How does it affect Russ? Is there a parallel to be drawn between Mr. Stone's behavior and Russ's own actions? What is it?
24. Russell speaks of a "butterfly effect," in which one small act has vast repercussions on the rest of the world. Does each of the girls have a butterfly effect that has shaped her life? What are these occurrences, and what are the ramifications of each? Do you believe in the idea of a butterfly effect? Why or why not?
25. Reflecting on her years at Mary Scott, Harriet admits she was probably in love with both Baby and Jeff. How does she show these feelings? Why doesn't Harriet keep in constant touch with Baby over the years? Do you think that Baby attempted to contact her? Why or why not?
26. Anna says that her mantra is "be here now." In which ways does she live by this philosophy, and how does she retreat from it? If each of the other women had a mantra, what would it be?
27. In your opinion, why doesn't Catherine immediately tell Russ about the lump in her breast? Why doesn't she confide in her friends? How is her attitude about the situation indicative of her personality?
28. At the end of the book, Harriet wonders if perhaps Baby was happy, after all. What evidence supports this view? How is Charlie Mahan's letter convincing? In which ways might it be misleading?
29. Baby's death is labeled an "accident." Do you think it was one? What do you surmise about Baby's emotional well-being? What instances in the book lead you to draw those conclusions? What are the arguments for her accidental death? For her suicide?
30. The ending of the book is an open one. What do you think becomes of Courtney, Catherine, Anna and Harriet after their trip? Which women seem poised to embark upon new chapters in their life?
31. The novel's last pages provide an account of the others who went on the rafting trip. How do these women figure into the friendship between the four girls on the cruise and Baby? In which ways are the blurbs a typical "where are they now"? How are they unconventional in form, style and tone? Why do you think Lee Smith uses them to close the book?
When Silas House, author of A Parchment of Leaves and Clay's Quilt, met his literary idol, Lee Smith, at one of her book signings while he was in college, he never dreamed that the correspondence they struck up would last more than ten years. That friendship continues today with their discussion of The Last Girls.
Silas House: Since the release of this book, it's become well-known that you actually did go down the Mississippi on a raft when you were in a college. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
Lee Smith: Yes, I really did go down the Mississippi River on a raft with 15 other young women in the summer of 1966, all of us students at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. The trip was inspired by our reading of Huckleberry Finn in our American literature classes. It was the brainchild of Tricia Neild from Shreveport, Louisiana--the kind of girl who knew how to grab the initiative and make things actually happen. She enlisted the rest of us. Under her leadership, we got the information; raised money; contacted a lumberyard in Paducah, Kentucky, to construct the raft; and found out about Captain Gordon S. Cooper, the retired riverboat captain who guided us down the river. In reality, we were NOT all English majors--what we had in common was a wild streak, I guess--a sense of adventure. Not every girl wants to take a trip like that, you know. Another difference is that we took two boys with us--family friends rather than boyfriends--and I have to say, they were indispensable as well as being great company. We were woefully ignorant about things like repairing the engines, for instance. In fact, we werenaive in many ways.
The Mississippi River is huge, and it can be very treacherous. Our second day out, we got hit by the tail of a hurricane and thrown against the revetments at Cairo, Illinois, where we had to stay for an extra day to fix that motor, and we were all mighty glad to have those guys on board. Now, of course, girls take courses like basic engineering even in high school--but ours was a different era. This is why I named the novel The Last Girls, of course.
But back to the raft: it was a wooden platform on top of oil drums, 16 feet wide, 34 feet long, with a two-by-four railing and superstructure that we could pull a tarp over in case of rain--which was totally ineffective, of course. It looked like a floating porch. We had two 40-horsepower Evinrude motors, mainly used for steering. You have to read the charts and stay in the right channel. Thank God for the captain! The river itself moves at about 8 miles an hour, I think, but it varies. Anyway, we had a steering wheel up front, and cables connecting it to the engines, of course--and a bucket with a rope attached to it, that was our shower. It was pretty primitive. We'd pull up to an island at night, or dock at a town, and camp wherever we could. I remember those nights around the campfire as some of the best times.
Sometimes we read aloud from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. Other times, townspeople would meet us at the dock, offering food and even showers–which were very welcome. We got pretty dirty, and the river itself wasn't too clean, either. We had naively imagined a very pastoral voyage, jumping off the raft whenever we felt like it to swim in the clear water, etc., but the water was mostly pretty muddy, and really dirty downriver from the larger cities like Memphis and Baton Rouge. Our chores ranged from things like cooking to keeping watch to navigating to scrubbing pots and pans in the sand--we pushed off each morning at 4 a.m.
We communicated by radio, and had a lot of fun listening to the radio banter we picked up from the other boats, ships, and barges on the river. Sometimes they'd be talking about us--because we were a real novelty, and we attracted a lot of media attention as we went along. We had not sought this out or anticipated it, and it also went against our earlier image of what our trip would be like.
We named the raft "The Rosebud Hobson," after a Hollins alumna whose sister entertained us in Paducah before we set off for New Orleans. We painted red rosebuds all over it--we had a lot of time to kill, just floating along. And I really was writing a novel at the time, on yellow legal pads, one of which got completely drenched--which was probably just as well! It took us twelve days to get from Paducah to New Orleans, a distance of 1050 miles.
SH:That must have been such an amazing experience. It sounds like there were some profound life lessons that were learned on that trip. How did it affect you as a young woman (I'm sure not going to call you a girl!)?
LS:That trip made me realize how rewarding it can be to push the boundaries--to try something difficult, something original, something you really want to do. We had all grown up in the conformist atmosphere of the Fifties, where the ideal seemed to be to fit in, to go with the group, to be a team player. The Sixties really hadn't happened to us yet, not personally, and not on most rural campuses or in small schools all across the country.
I think the raft trip helped me realize that challenges can be exciting rather than threatening. But actually Hollins College always did a very good job in general of preparing its young women to face their futures both realistically and creatively. I'm a strong advocate for single-sex education, for women's colleges such as Hollins, Mills, and Randolph Macon. And the women who were on the actual raft have proved to be an amazingly accomplished and diverse group. Anne Goodwyn Jones, famous for her ground-breaking book Tomorrow Is Another Day, a feminist study of Southern women writers, teaches English at the University of Florida; Alison Ames was with Deutsche Grammophon recording company for years and now makes violins herself; Vicky Derby is a lawyer in New Orleans; Nancy Beckham and Lee Harrison became journalists; Kathy Hershey is a judge in the Pacific Northwest; Mary Poe is a law school professor; Tricia Neild is in development at San Diego State University--just to give you an idea. Some of us are married, some are not. Some, like myself, have divorced and remarried. I don't know where some of them are, or what they're doing now.
After giving this a lot of thought, I decided NOT to look everybody up. I wanted to be able to fully imagine and create my characters in The Last Girls, which I have done. I'm the kind of writer who really does like to make things up--the truth can be pretty limiting, and I like to be free to fully create my characters' lives.
SH:And when you realized you were going to do this book, you decided to take another trip down the river, just as the women in the book do, right? Did you spend the whole trip just having a sort of déjà vu, remembering your college days on the river raft?
LS:Yes, I convinced my husband, Hal Crowther and another couple--our good friends, Jane and Vereen Bell--to go down the river with me on board the Mississippi Queen in the summer of 1999. But I did NOT "spend the whole trip having déja vu," as you put it--there was too much going on! The second trip proved to be entirely engrossing on its own terms, in ways I had not envisioned--just as the first trip had. For one thing, it was hilarious. I had never been on a cruise before, so I was fascinated by all the planned activities--all those daytime-TV-type games in the Grand Saloon, for instance, and all the contests, and the talent show.... I really got into it. I had imagined The Last Girls as a tragic novel, frankly, before we took that second trip, but it rapidly turned into a tragic-comic sort of book, which is probably all to the good. Because some of the main themes here really are grim, you know--aging, and loss, and death.... the course of all our lives. So I'm glad I ran into a laugh or two.
SH: And so this second trip taught you some "profound lessons" as well?
LS: That second trip really did provide me some new perspectives on the raft trip--for instance, the river really is enormous. There are many places where you can't even see across it. What were our parents thinking? I wondered as I stood on the observation deck of the Mississippi Queen looking out. I couldn't believe my own over-protective parents had ever let me go. And there is such a vast, brooding, mysterious majesty about the Mississippi River, too, no matter the circumstances of your voyage. No wonder it has always occupied such a central place in the American imagination. It really does run right thorough the middle of our national psyche, exemplifying our eternal push toward the frontier, toward the future, our need to go deeper and deeper "into the territory" as Huck Finn puts it, striking out for the unknown.
SH:Anna is one of your most hilarious characters. I especially love the titles of her Confederacy Series–among them, The Tennessee Stud and Tupelo Honey. Early on in your career you wrote a short story ("Desire on Domino Island") that spoofed romance novels. Do you have a secret affinity for romance writing (which we both know is an incredibly difficult genre to write)?
LS: Actually, my husband made up some of those titles; the best one, The Missouri Compromise, was his. But I've always been fascinated by genre fiction--not only romance novels, but mystery fiction and Westerns as well. I'm intrigued by their enduring popularity--it's the same plot, over and over, yet clearly they fill a real need, especially the romances. What is this need? Who are these readers? And, as Anna notes in The Last Girls, the romance novels always end just at the point where our hero and our heroine finally get together--just the point where our own real-life, grown-up stories actually begin. But please understand me, I'm not putting romance fiction down here. Like you said, it is incredibly hard to write within a formula, yet be creative; to render this plot both new and believable. During one particularly broke period in my past, I tried to write a romance novel--and failed miserably! So I can't scoff. And also, I find something beautiful in the way we all want so desperately to believe in the possibility of true love--the way we keep going for it again and again. That's the story people want to read, obviously.
SH: Even though Baby is dead throughout the book, she's my favorite character, and I know that many other readers agree. We love characters that are fearless and self-destructive and fun. I'm wondering if there was a Baby in your life whom this character is based on.
LS:I think we all encounter a Baby sometime in our lives--usually in high school or college. This is the friend who is the "wild child," the friend who is always in trouble and who will get you in trouble, too; the friend your mother considers a "bad influence;" the friend who is often the most charismatic and interesting person you know. I knew several "Babys" myself. I also wanted to point out how things that happen to us when we are young really can set a stamp on the rest of our lives. We are blank slates then, very impressionable, more open to the world than we will ever be again. I hate to hear somebody say, "Oh, she's so young, she'll get over it," dismissing a girl's trauma. The fact is that she might not "get over it;" some things are irrevocable. And at that age, friendships can be so very important.
SH: Speaking of friendships, I think Harriet's friendship with Baby is the emotional anchor of the book. While Baby is the most popular, Harriet is the most endearing. I came to care about her most, I believe. When you started the book did you know that Harriet was going to take on this central role and be more pivotal than the other women?
LS:Yes, to me this novel was primarily Harriet's story because Baby is at the very center of it, and Baby was Harriet's best friend. In fact, Harriet was so traumatized by her conviction that she had "caused" Jeff's death that she withdrew into an emotional shell from which she is only beginning to emerge as she travels down the river again with her former classmates. Will she let the Riverlorian take her on that tour of the French Quarter? Will she go dancing with him? Yes, I think she will, don't you?
SH: I hope so. I wanted her to start having more fun.
LS: This second river voyage has been really therapeutic for her. In my own mind, friendship is one of the main themes in this novel. Friendships can be very complicated. (I used to give my writing students this assignment: Write a story about a friendship which ended badly. The resulting stories were always amazing, extraordinary. I think this is a story each one of us can tell.)
SH:I know you wrote a whole lot of yourself into each of the main characters. However, you once told me that you related to Courtney the least. Why? And to which character do you relate the most, and why?
LS:Anne Tyler once said, "I write because I want to have more than one life." I do, too. In fact, this is one of the great privileges of being a writer--you get to walk around in somebody else's skin for a while, live somebody else's life. You are not stuck within the confines of your own biography--or even your own century! So there's a lot of me in each of these women. So much so, that it was a hard book for me to write, because I kept feeling like I couldn't control them. To use the river metaphor, I felt like each one of them threatened to take over the entire novel, grabbing the wheel whenever it was her turn to tell her story, steering the whole steamboat down some dark bayou of her own! It was like being the captain of a crew of mutineers. The ways in which I felt close to each woman are obvious: I've spent my life as a schoolteacher, like Harriet; I constantly juggle my role as wife and mother with the demands of being an artist, like Catherine; writing has been a solace for me, as it has for Anna; and I was a wild girl myself, many eons ago, like Baby. But Courtney is more like my mother's voice still whispering in my head, "Now Lee, you know you really OUGHT to...." Hers is finally the voice of duty and tradition and conformity, in spite of her fling with Gene Minor. I am very sympathetic to Courtney, the moral dilemma she faces is extremely difficult.
SH:Speaking of difficult, let's talk about Baby's poetry, which I loved. I imagine it must have been really hard to write poems through a character… poetry is such a revealing thing, you know. Did you enjoy writing those poems? So I would think that you really had to step inside Baby's skin to write those. In many ways, I think the poems solidified the character for me.
LS:Baby's poems came as a big surprise to me, frankly. They were not in my outline. In fact, I was well into the book when I became increasingly bothered because Baby never got to speak for herself, even though she was really the catalyst for the whole plot. But she was dead--she had no voice. One day I was sitting out in my back yard worrying about this, and fooling around with a pencil and a yellow legal pad (this is the way I write) when suddenly, out of the blue, poems started coming to me from somewhere. I wrote them down--it was all I could do to keep up! After a little while, I realized that these were Baby's early poems, which she had written on all those little scraps of paper and jammed down into her jeans pockets on the raft. I wrote about sixty of them, I think, though not all of them found their way into the finished novel. It was like a revelation. Her entire biography and motivations suddenly became clear to me.
SH:In the frontispiece, you use Cort Conley's quote "Sometimes life is more like a river than a book." That's a beautiful phrase, and I'm wondering who Cort is and in what context he said this?
LS:Cort Conley is a writer, naturalist, and river guide who has spent his life documenting and trying to preserve the wild rivers and backcountry of his beloved Idaho. He said this quote to me when he was guiding us on a raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River years ago.
SH:Another rafting trip that proved useful in your writing. Okay, now I'm going to try and stir up a little controversy. Is there anything that women lost when people stopped calling them girls? I just want to get you talking a little bit about feminism, since this novel is–to me, at least–very much about the evolution of women in the last 40 years or so.
LS:In all my yellowed newspaper clippings, the press refers to us as "girls;" today, of course, they'd call us "women." We were the last "girls," graduating into a new world made possible by feminism. In 1966, a lot of things were changing for good, though we didn't really understand that yet. Our struggles were to come. More possibilities and opportunities for women would bring greater freedom and choice, but also greater expectations and responsibilities--along with a lack of both stability and illusion. Whatever happened to romance, for instance? Or the sacred Fifties Family? Though I am a dedicated feminist through and through myself, I admit that certain things--certain "grace notes," if you will, have been lost. And although it's more exhilarating, it's a lot harder working without a net.
SH:This book really touched a nerve with readers. Why do you think people related so strongly to this particular story?
LS:I think it has to do with demographics, frankly--women my age are the people who are in the book groups, the people who read fiction. The characters in The Last Girls are our age, too. We all like to read about people at our own stage of life, facing some of the same issues we are facing. I know the book is also being read by men and younger readers, because I am hearing from them, too, but I think this novel especially speaks to my women contemporaries.
SH:This book is really full of secrets that continue to be revealed. I'm curious what your fan mail has been like lately. I'm assuming that readers might be writing to share their own college experiences with you and their own life-changes as women.
LS:You're right--The Last Girls has elicited a lot more immediate and passionate fan mail than my other books. Most of the letters are from readers who have been inspired to tell me their own secrets and stories, those unforgettable things that have happened to them in college which forever shaped the course of their lives. Many of the readers have identified with a particular character or issue she is facing. I should add that several letters have been irate--women furious because they felt I "did not present positive, high-achieving role models for young women"--this is a quote. All I can do is remind them that this is fiction; and the business of fiction is to raise the questions, not provide the answers. Fiction should not be dogmatic--readers will have to go to the self-help shelves for that kind of book.
SH:It's really beautiful the way you can make us laugh at these characters without ever once condescending to them. But what amazes me most about this book is the way you balance comedy with the serious (for instance, the scene where Baby's ashes are being scattered). How do you pull this off? Are you conscious of comedic timing and such?
LS:I have always taken a tragic view of life, from the time I was very young. I don't know exactly why this is so--maybe it's genetic. Depression always ran in my family. And I grew up in a coal-mining town, which involves a general attitude of fatalism, I think. It sort of seeps into your bones. But luckily, I was born with a sense of humor as well. In the family as well as in any group or class, I was often the little clown. It makes sense if you think about it. You just can't sit in a closet and weep. You have to recognize what's funny, tell a joke, in order to keep going. Otherwise you couldn't stand it. In my work, as in my view of life, tragedy and comedy are often inextricably linked.
SH:Many readers and critics said this was a very different book for you. In what ways do you agree and disagree with that statement?
LS:I think it's different only in superficial ways--it's contemporary, it's not set in the Appalachian Mountains like several of my best known novels. But I've written other contemporary novels, too--Family Linen, Fancy Strut, and The Christmas Letters, for instance, as well as many short stories. Over the years I have done a lot of work with oral history, and I have long been fascinated by the fact that if you interview five people who were all present at the same event, for instance, you will get five completely different stories. To me, The Last Girls is all about storytelling--about how we construct the narratives for our lives which we have to have, which we have to believe in. Storytelling has long been my passion.
SH:This is your most contemporary book, though, isn't it? In terms of modern life stepping in. Which do you enjoy writing most–writing about contemporary problems and people or about the past?
LS: Actually it's harder for me to write contemporary fiction. I think that the kind of writer you will be is shaped by how you first heard language--who was speaking, where you were--and in my case, it was the wonderful Appalachian-flavored speech of older people, people who loved me. These are the voices I hear speaking in my ear, telling me the story. So paradoxically, it is easier for me to write, for instance, a conversation taking place in an old tobacco barn in 1930 than it is for me to write a conversation taking place in a faculty lounge or a spa today.
SH: And I hear that your next book will actually be set in the past.
LS: Yes, I'll be heading back to the hills for the next one, a love story set soon after the Civil War. I think this is next...but I visualize my mind like a stove full of bubbling pots, each one with a novel brewing in it, dying to get moved up to the front burner, so I'm never quite sure.
SH: Well, whatever it is, we'll all be waiting anxiously.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was the first book by Lee Smith I have read and I loved it! I went to a women's college in Virginia and it reminded me so much of all my friends and made me 'home sick' for those days. Treat yourself to this book- you will not be disappointed.
A pretty good book, though it was sometimes a little strange. I would recommend it to young women or mature readers. It's very funny at times and made me laugh out loud, but it also made me cry.
The author reads this and I should have stopped the disc as soon as I heard the narrator's very thick southern accent b/c this may have something to do with my not enjoying this book. There are too many characters for this author to handle. Just plain boring, confusing and depressing.
I just finished this book for a book club.Had to force myself to get through this book. Did not keep my attention. Found myself skimming through many parts of it. No one in my book club liked it. Did not like the characters. They didn't seem to like eachother or themselves. I'm trying to figure out where some readers cried while reading the book. This book lacked flow, character, substance, etc.
I initially got really into this book. Loved the characters immediately. About halfway through, the book started to limp. The ending was just a fizzle. I also thought the book 'wandered' as the author wrote pages upon pages about the river and it's history. If I had wanted to know that much about it, I would have read a history book. It's as if the author was trying to bulk up the book or prove how in-depth the research had been.
I did not hate it, but I was definitely less than in love with it. I bought it on the way to the beach last year because I had left my Harry Potter book at home; should have left well enough alone. The plot is disjointed and forced. When I got to the end, I wasn't really sure what had happened or where the story went wrong.
I recieved this book for Christmas this year, and finished it in about 3 days. I thought that it was a pretty accurate description of southern life, college days, etc. The ending did leave me hanging a little, but I like that- it gives the reader an opportunity to formulate their own opinions. All in all, I would defintely recommend this book!
I'm about 3/4 of the way through this book and am asking myself, 'what is this book about exactly?' I do not agree with another reviewer who said it was vulgar. If you want vulgar, read Our Lady of the Forest. However, both books are disappointing and I am at a loss as to why they are bestsellers.
Or does it really? Southern women in your 50's is this how it really was/is? After thirty years of living in the south I still have a hard time believing women really grew up so silently, or should I say so alone? These characters feel so alone, so unconnected -- how sad? Why doesn't anyone say what they are really thinking? Interesting--but, I was expecting more depth.
What a great novel from one of the country's best southern writers! This tale of friends coming to terms with the past and finding their way through middle age left me in tears and laughter. Lee Smith does not disappoint us with this long awaited new novel.
I was looking for The Lost Girls when I found this one. I didn't have anything else to listen to & members of my online group had mentioned it. I was glad I picked it up. I was craving more history though.
The "Last Girls" are a group of women celebrating their 40th reunion from A Southern college by repeating a trip down the Mississippi they had taken after their original graduation. They also plan to spread the ashes of one of their original members in the river. This time, however, they are traveling by steamship instead of the raft they used on the original journey. Some travel with their "significant others", & others are alone. The story is told from these various POV's & we get to know each "girl" & her history. This is a fun read. The 40 years between the trips has not made as many changes as would be imagined. The scenes of the river, the ship & crew, the Mississippi Gulf Coast & the City of New Orleans made me long to take such a journey. The Last Girls was published before the destruction of hurricane Katrina which has added an un-intended defination to the word "last".
Boring. I just couldn't get into it. I've gotten about 1/4 of the way, and just decided to quit.
I was intrigued by the premise and totally let down by the execution. I neither cared about nor identified with any of the women. I would hope that my reunions with college friends are never this dull and unimportant.
A different view of being friends and life