Oral History

Oral History

by Lee Smith

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"The best novel so far by a writer whose growth has been steady and sure . . . . [Oral History] 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 Washington Post Book World

"A novel as dark, winding, complicated as the hill country itself. . . You could make comparisons to Faulkner and Carson McCullers, to The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Wuthering Heights. You could employ all those familiar ringing terms of praise: 'rare,' 'brilliant,' 'unforgettable.' But Lee Smith and Oral History make you wish all those phrases were fresh and new, that all those comparisons had never before been made. For this is a novel deserving of unique praise." -- The Village Voice

"Deft and assured . . . She is clearly drunk on the language of Appalachia, on its stories and its people . . . . She is nothing less than masterly." -- The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101565612
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/06/2011
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 173,151
File size: 354 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lee Smith was born in Grundy, VA. She is author of many novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Last Girls, and most recently Guests On Earth. She is a recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and a Southern Book Critics Circle Award.

Reading Group Guide

1. ORAL HISTORY begins as a third person narrative, told from the viewpoint of a modern college co-ed, Jennifer.  Why does Lee Smith frame the novel in this manner?  How is it an effective narrative technique?

2. How does the novel function as an actual oral history?  What are the effects of a shifting narrative voice and perspective?  Through form, content and style, how does Smith make each voice distinctive?

3. The major stories of ORAL HISTORY center on Almarine, Dory and Pearl.  Why are their stories told from the vantage points of others?  Does this make their tales more or less effective?  Why?

4. In which ways do superstition and natural magic form a foundation of belief in ORAL HISTORY?   What are some examples of events in the novel where spells are used to explain both good events and evil occurrences?   Is weather ever personified as a force of good or of evil?  How?

5. In the beginning of the novel, how does Smith depict young Almarine?  What is his family life like?  Why does he value Hoot Owl Holler so much?  How does his life change after he becomes determined to find a girl, at Granny Younger's request?

6. How does Granny Younger provide guidance to those around her?  What about her character inspires respect?  In which ways does she serve as the matriarch of the community around her?  After Granny's death, how does Rhoda Hibbitts take her place as the bedrock of the community? 

7. What about Emmy so mesmerizes Almarine?  What attracts Emmy to him?  How does she adjust her life at first to be a suitable wife to him?  What about her causes others fear and consternation?  Why, ultimately, does Almarine force her to leave, and why does that cause him such pain?

8. How does Almarine meet his second wife, Pricey Jane?  How is she different from Emmy?  In which ways is she a "girl like a summer day," as Granny Younger says (page 63)?    What is her relationship with Almarine like?  How is the story of their marriage, and its untimely end, reminiscent of folklore or a fairy tale?

9. Almarine's son, Eli, and Pricey Jane die unexpectedly.  What practical reasons can explain their deaths?  Why do others blame Red Emmy for it?   How does Almarine change after Eli and Pricey Jane's death?  What prompts Almarine to then form a relationship with Vashti?

10. How does Almarine change as he grows older?  Which of his positive traits harden into negative ones?  What actions lead to his death, and how does his family react to it?  Does his murder prompt the unraveling of his family?  How?

11. Who are the women in ORAL HISTORY who most captivate those around them?  Do these women share any characteristics in common?  In your opinion, who comes the closest to finding true love?  Who is the most miserable?  Why?

12. How does the character of Richard Burlage compare and contrast to the individuals you meet in the first section of ORAL HISTORY?  How is his journal different in terms of content, style and awareness? 

13. What motivations-both selfish and unselfish-propel Richard to travel from his privileged home to teach school in Appalachia?  How does his family, particularly his brother, react to that decision? How does his life of privilege inform his perceptions of those he meets?  What are his attitudes toward his new students and their families?

14. Why does Richard take special note of Jink Cantrell?  How does Jink react to Richard's special attention, and why does Richard give it to him?  How does Richard's attitude toward Jink change after Dory enters the picture?  What does Jink think about Richard after he's gone?  Why does Jink save the orange that Richard has given him?  What does it represent to Jink?

15. In which ways does Dory intrigue Richard?  What does the schoolteacher represent to her?  How is the relationship realistic, and in which ways is it rooted in fantasy?  Do you think that Dory ever intends to leave her home?   Why or why not?

16. Ora Mae not only conceals from Dory the love letter that Richard has written, but also tells him Dory never wants to see him again.  Why does she do this?  What effect does this deceit have on Dory and Richard individually, and on their relationship?  What does that action say about Ora Mae's concept of choice, particularly as it pertains to her half-sister?

17. How does Dory change after she is "ruint," marries Little Luther and becomes a mother?   Why does she leave and wander about without giving any warning?  What is the reaction of her children to her behavior?  How does Little Luther react?  What do you think Dory was searching for?  Does she ever find it?

18. When Parrot asks Ora Mae if she feels a thing, she replies, "Nope."  How true is this assertion?  Why is Ora Mae closed up emotionally?  How do her circumstances of arrival into the Cantrell family contribute to that attitude?  Who else in the novel shares the same emotional ambivalence?

19. Ora Mae views herself as the emotional and physical center of the Cantrell family.  Why does she feel this way?  Do others share her view?  How is Ora Mae a good mother, and in what ways is she lacking as a parent and a role model?  How is her conception of motherhood different from Dory's?

20. "Things was not clear in my mind before Parrot," Ora Mae discloses (page 212).  What "things" does Parrot clarify for her?  Do other women in the story experience a similar turning point after the attentions of a man in their life?  Which ones?

21. What does Ora Mae's self-professed ability to see the future affect her?  How does it influence her decisions in life, from the time that she was a child to her decisions about marriage and beyond?  How is this ability to tell the future itself a form of curse?  Do other figures in this novel also believe that they have this ability?  Who are they?

22. Which reasons-both public and private-prompt Richard to return to Appalachia?  In which ways are Richard's manifestations of wealth and success, important to him?  What effect do they have on the people he sees in Appalachia?  Why doesn't he speak to Dory, instead taking a picture of her?  What events do you imagine are most important in Richard's autobiography (published to "universal but somewhat limited acclaim" (p. 285) )? 

23. Why are Dory's earrings such a coveted keepsake?  Why is it appropriate that Maggie receives them?  Why is Pearl resentful of that?  In which ways does Pearl attempt to be different from an early age?  What are the reasons behind this behavior? 

24. Why does Pearl take Sally into her confidence?  What reaction does Sally have to her sister's newfound trust in her?  Why does Pearl embark upon a relationship with Donnie Osborne? What are the consequences that result, both for Pearl and her family, and for Donnie himself?

25. Is Little Luther's son Almarine in any way like his namesake?  How?  How do the two men differ?

26. "Life is a mystery and that's a fact," says Sally (page 275).  How does this statement represent a theme that threads throughout the novel?  What mysteries remain unexplainable in the book?  Who searches for answers to these enigmas?

27. The prologue and epilogue of ORAL HISTORY appear in italics.  Why does Smith set these parts of the book apart?   Do you believe that the last part of the novel is real, or imagined in Jennifer's mind?  Why do you feel this way?

28. In your opinion, does the adage "blood is thicker than water" apply to this book?  Why or why not?

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