Lee Smith has written more than fifteen novels and collections that capture the strong Appalachian women who inspired her. For The Last Girls, Smith revisited an actual journey she made with fifteen Hollins College English majors following the raft adventure of Huckleberry Finn.
The title “the Last Girls” refers to the pre-feminist movement of 1966, future college females would be referred to as “women” and not “girls," so her generation became “the Last Girls.” This fact stood out for Lee Smith as she perused her yellowed clippings of the actual 1966 raft trip down the Mississippi River, where all the articles referred to the sixteen college females as “girls.” The word managed to freeze that period of innocence in time and proved to be a great vehicle for Smith as her characters come to terms with their past and future during the reunion trip.
For the novel, Smith brings four members together for a reunion voyage on the Belle of Natchez riverboat as they say goodbye to a fifth member of the original raft trip. Lee Smith's skill as a storyteller is evident in her characterization of five types of southern womanhood – the wallflower living in the past, the Southern Living socialite, the celebrated romance author, the Earth Mother, and the neurotic wild girl.
Harriet Holding is the wallflower living in the past. The college English instructor goes through a daily routine, while her personal life has been on hold. She was Babe Ballou’s roommate and best friend, and she is now in charge of the reunion trip to dispose of Babe’s ashes in the river.
Courtney Gray is the Southern Living socialite. Coming from humble means, Courtney found a rich boyfriend and married him before completing her degree. Highly organized and ruled by society’s code, Courtney tends to sacrifice her happiness for material comfort.
Anna Todd is the celebrated romance author. She survived a troubled childhood and a cold first marriage by escaping into her writing and hard work. Anna discovered that a fantasy lover can be more pleasing than the real thing.
Catherine Wilson is the Earth Mother. A sculptor, mother and multi-married woman, Catherine brought her current husband on the trip. The love between them is strong, but Catherine holds a secret that is causing her to push her devoted mate away.
Babe Ballou is the neurotic wild girl. Born into one of Alabama’s riches families, Babe has a troubled past that has created a self-destructive nature in her relationships. She is a talented poet, whose works at times hint of a Sylvia Path temperament.
Other characters touch the main characters on this voyage to self-discovery and mid-life evaluation. Smith digs into the soul of each woman as they discover their path. She also uses the image of ‘girls,’ as each realizes that they are now mature women who must take control of their lives. It is something that Babe Ballou may have realized in college, when she became Margaret Ballou Mahan.
Using her natural wit, Smith is able to tell these women’s stories, which at times are dark, with humor, grace and hope. The Last Girls is a great book club selection.
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