The recent, easy popularity of Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood reminds us why no Lee Smith title appears on the multiplex marquis. She offers no Southerners from central casting, no soundbite stories, no smooth studio pitch, although Roy Blount came close when he once said that reading Lee Smith was like "reading Madame Bovary while listening to Loretta Lynn and watching Guiding Light."
After resigning in 1999 from her professorship at N.C. State, where she taught for 18 years, Smith helped 30 Grundy, Va., high school students, their English teacher and a town librarian record the history of a place literally about to disappear. A flood-control project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will place Grundy--Smith's hometown--permanently underwater by the end of this decade. Smith edited the group's preservation efforts in Sitting on the Courthouse Bench: An Oral History of Grundy, Virginia in 2000.
Since then, Smith has turned her attention from her homeland's Levisa River to the Mississippi, which she and 15 other Hollins College students traveled by raft more than 30 years ago. Throughout her career, Smith has emphasized Hollins' importance in her development as a writer, but neither her years there in the creative writing program nor her trip down the Mississippi with classmates has served as source material until now.
Though it's tempting to label The Last Girls, with its parallel raft trip, a roman à clef, the novel is neither that nor memoir, despite an increased blurring of these genres. If Smith hadn't traveled down the Mississippi in 1966, she probably would have invented such a trip anyway. The idea of a river journey as a metaphor for women's lives has long intrigued Smith, who'd discussed in a 1988 interview the appeal of such a story: "It's the idea of a voyage, I guess. We were all ready to graduate from college and were so simple-minded in a way. Just sail down the Mississippi. And in the interim, so many things have happened to us, so many things that have happened to other women our ages."
Like Smith and her Hollins classmates, the girls at the fictional Mary Scott College (an apparent fusion of Mary Baldwin and Agnes Scott), embark on their journey after reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Lines from Twain's novel enter when a character remembers the professor who gave her "goosebumps all over when he read aloud."
Though Twain's novel informs The Last Girls, Smith's characters are no latter-day Hucks. Author Josephine Humphries could have been elegantly summing the difference between the two in a passage from her work, Rich in Love: "... When you read that book, if you are a girl, you say to yourself this kid has a long way to go. He is so happy with his Jim, and his raft, and his old river. The light never dawns on him. Boys have that extended phase of innocence. I do not think girls have it at all. Imagine Becky Thatcher writing that book and you have an altogether different concept. You have something dark."
In Smith's world, the Becky characters--Harriet, Courtney, Catherine and Anna--reunite 35 years after their raft trip. But their riverboat cruise with stops at Vegas-style casinos is no more a re-enactment of the original than the late-career Elvis impersonated by Courtney's secret lover. The purpose of the reunion isn't to resurrect the past but to honor it. (Saying exactly how would reveal too much of the story.)
Though Smith isn't considered a post-modernist, she diagnoses our current condition, not unlike the trio of doctors who study Harriet's "uterus and ovaries and Fallopian tubes and everything thrown up on the screen like a map." Back when the Last Girls first traveled the river, technoculture and hysterectomies were equally unreal to them.
Thirty-five years later, they are women who've adapted, pursuing their careers and raising children. Smith notes how Catherine reared a family "in the haphazard way she did everything. They fixed their own breakfasts, filled out their own permission forms. They went to school. They grew up." The "haphazard way" of Catherine's, born of necessity and engendering independence, is a testament to the Last Girls' self-reliance.
In stark contrast, their male counterparts not only look to models of the past, they attempt to actually become them. Courtney's lover impersonates Elvis; Pete, a man steeped in river lore, performs as Mark Twain. The late Lou, the love of Anna's life "specialized in wacky copies of famous paintings by modern masters."
The Last Girls resists all that cultural pastiche. The title characters know that they aren't girls anymore--nor is anyone else, for that matter. As Harriet remembers the first days of the journey, she thinks to herself, "If they made the same trip today, they would not be referred to as 'girls' [. . .] . They would be called 'women.'"