I first heard of author Lee Smith while attending Calvin College's "Festival of Faith and Writing" last spring. I fell in love with the excerpts of short stories she read. Often erroneously compared with Flannery O'Connor (Christian, Southerner, female, sometimes bad things happen in her stories), Lee Smith is a vital force and great talent in her own right. For others unfamiliar with her work, her latest novel, Saving Grace, is a great place to start.
Named for the state she was born in, the grace of God, and her wayward-wandering preacher-daddy, Florida Grace Shepherd promises to tell us the truth of her life sparing us "not even the part about Lamar nor how Mama died nor the true nature of Travis Word nor what transpired between me and Randy Newhouse." She is as good as her word.
That Saving Grace, Lee Smith's ninth novel, reads as autobiography, despite some obviously fictive quirks, is testament to its strength. This is a work of consummate skill and all-too-human warmth. Smith's is a world populated by very real, very flawed people. It is a world in which grace is strangely abundant, and reconciliation, if not redemption, is a genuine possibility.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the character of Florida Grace herself, one of the most complete protagonists in contemporary literature. As she wrestles with her sense of self, sexuality, family loyalties, and the all-encompassing struggle with the role of religion in her life, Florida Grace tugs us along on her very personal odyssey with all the gentle irresistibility of a gulf tide. From the little Holiness girl who hates Jesus because he "made us take up travelling in His name, living with strangers and in tents and old school buses" to the middle-aged grandmother and "fallen" woman who finally returns to the little town of Scrabble Creek, North Carolina, to find the truth of her experiences, she remains an entirely sympathetic character.