At the beginning of Lee Smith's fifth novel a college student named Jennifer has arrived in Hoot Owl Holler, a tiny, isolated and backward settlement in southwesternmost Virginia. She has her tape recorder, and her mission is to make an oral history of her mother's family and its "picturesque old homeplace" on Hoot Owl Mountain. This assignment has been given to her by Professor Bernie Ripman, who "wanted me to expand my consciousness, my tolerance, my depth."
But the voices that speak in "Oral History" are not those that Jennifer expects to hear. They are instead voices from the past, orchestrated by Smith into a chorus that tells the story of the Cantrell family and the odd curse that its members believe to have hung over them. It is a tale that begins in the late 19th century with Granny Younger, the midwife, and continues well into the 20th century through several generations of Cantrells; it is also a tale deeply rooted in the folk culture of the Appalachians, a tale that in the best tradition of folklore contains "story upon story."
The Cantrells believe that their mysterious curse dates back to the wild infatuation of Almarine Cantrell with a "witch" known as Red Emmy. "Almarine was bewitched," Granny Younger recalls, "and twerent none of us could holp him. Everbody that had liked him so good, turned their back now. You don't want no truck with a witch." When at last he ends his affair with her and marries Pricey Jane, she retaliates--or so the community believes--with a brutal vengeance, leaving him a widower charged with the upbringing of his infant daughter, Dory.
Here the narrative changes sharply. In 1923 an innocent and idealistic young Richmonder, Richard Burlage, comes to Hoot Owl Holler to teach school; he is going back to nature on a "simple geographical pilgrimage" that he hopes will take him to "the very roots of consciousness and belief." But what he finds there is Dory, now grown into a young woman of incandescent beauty; he falls madly in love with her, leaves her "ruint," and is encouraged to hop on the next eastbound train.
He wants to take Dory back to Richmond with him--rather in the manner of John Rolfe taking Pocahontas back to London--and she is eager to go, but her family prevents her escape. And gradually, as the tale moves along to subsequent generations, the nature of the family curse becomes clear. Her daughter Sally describes it: "People say they're haunted and they are--every one of them all eat up with wanting something they haven't got." Almarine wants Red Emmy, Dory wants Richard Burlage, her daughter Pearl wants a vague, indefinable "something else." These mountain folk may be insular and backward, but like everyone else they crave more than life has in store for them; human circumstances may vary wildly, but human nature does not.
This is a rather modest moral, but then "Oral History" is a modest book. Like Smith's previous novel, "Black Mountain Breakdown," it seeks more than anything else to tell us what mountain life and mountain people are like--to take us on a tour of terra incognita. Though the voices of all those who lead this tour are distinct and convincing--the novel has about a dozen narrators, and the individuality of each of them has been impressively realized--the most entertaining is that of Burlage. His prose, which is elegant and just a trifle arch, contrasts pointedly with the world it describes:
"I have never seen such impenetrable terrain. The mountains here are not grand and rolling, as they are around Lynchburg and Roanoke. They are steep, straight up and down, with rocky cliffs and vertical gorges. It astounds me that anyone ever thought to settle here in the first place! Viewing this virtually inaccessible land from the jolting train, I was struck forcibly with a thought: seeing this, who would choose to live here? And yet there is an inescapable appeal, I find, in the very strangeness, the very inaccessibility. As our little train jolted ever farther into the rough terrain, I realized that, unwittingly, I had probably picked the most remote area still left in these United States; certainly I could not have felt more a stranger had I just entered India . . ."
The literacy and self-mockery of Burlage's narrative are, I confess, something of a relief after the faithfully rendered country talk of Granny Younger and the other narrators. But the tension provided by these discrete voices is one of the strengths of "Oral History"; among the others are its sympathetic but utterly unsentimental view of the mountain people and its vivid description of the physical world they inhabit. It's the best novel thus far by a writer whose growth has been steady and sure.