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Author Lee Smith sings the praises of mountain women as the adaptation of her "Fair and Tender Ladies" comes to TheatreVirginia. 

Appalachian Spring

By all accounts, Lee Smith is a writer's writer. One critic called her "the Queen of the new Southern regional movement." She has won more than a half-dozen prestigious writing awards, among them the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction in 1991. And she's written 10 books, two of which have been adapted for the stage, including the musical, "Fair and Tender Ladies," opening at TheatreVirginia on Wednesday, April 18.

Given such a background, it's surprising to hear the silver-haired Smith say that she doesn't fit any classic writer stereotypes. "I think people have a romantic notion of [writers] wearing black capes and living in the south of France," she says, in an exuberant voice shot through with a tart Southern twang. "I've always wanted to have an average daily life: teach school, have children, get a sense of what life is about."

Smith started getting that sense hanging around her father's five-and-dime in Grundy, where as a child she would eavesdrop on the stories customers would tell. More than 50 years later, she says, "I'm still eavesdropping." Her abiding interest in people's stories came full circle with the recent publication of "Sitting on the Courtroom Bench," an oral history of her hometown which she completed with the help of several Grundy high school students. Last year, Smith received special recognition from the Virginia House of Delegates for her examination and glorification of Appalachian life and culture.

To Smith, the Appalachian region is unique because it was cut off from mainstream America for so long. "Geographically and culturally, it really was a land unto itself," Smith explains. "Even the language was different, very beautiful and very specific."

In her writings, she has sought to preserve some of that language and culture. Smith is delighted that "Fair and Tender Ladies" has been adapted as a musical because it marries the words of her novel with old-time mountain music — another important aspect of Appalachian life. "This is the kind of music I grew up on," says Smith, who still attends bluegrass festivals across the South.

With "Fair and Tender Ladies," the author also wanted to give dignity to the lives of mountain women of the early 20th century. "Their lives were very hard. They had too many children and not enough of anything else," Smith says. "Still, they managed to live with grace and dignity." The central character in the book and the play is Ivy Rowe, born in 1900 into a family with nine children. In a life-long series of letters, she tells her story, from the caring for her mentally handicapped sister through the out-of-wedlock birth of her daughter, to the Depression, marriage, death and other challenges.

Smith says Ivy Rowe's life "is not the kind of life you usually read about." Though writers are often nervous about having their work adapted, Smith says seeing Ivy on stage brings her great joy: "As a writer, you spend so many years with these people rattling around in your head. It's astonishing then to see them standing in front of you."

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