Butterfly perched on a flower
#49: Lee Smith 1996
Saving Grace, April 13, 2022
In Rewrite Radio Episode #49, writer Lee Smith talks about and reads from her novel Saving Grace. Smith lets us into the stories behind her novels, her experiences with southern churches, and her fascination with all forms of ecstatic religion.
- Saving Grace (1996) by Lee Smith
Jennifer Holberg: [00:00:05] Today on Rewrite Radio, Lee Smith talks about and reads from her novel Saving Grace. Smith lets us into the stories behind her novels, her experiences with Southern churches, and her fascination with all forms of ecstatic religion.
My name is Jennifer Holberg, and along with Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Lee Smith was born in Grundy, Virginia, and her keen-eyed but warm observations about Appalachia and the South inform her novels and short story collections. Her works include The Last Girls, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Dimestore, and my own favorite Fair and Tender Ladies. Smith is the recipient of many awards, including the Robert Penn Warren Prize for fiction and the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. You can learn more about her on our website, CCFW.calvin.edu.
And now, from the 1996 Festival of Faith & Writing, Lee Smith.
Lee Smith: [00:01:31] Thank you so much. It is a great pleasure to be here, and I'm happy to see everyone. I'm amazed that everyone is up so early. This is great. After two days of this conference. I want to read to you this morning from my most recent novel, which is named Saving Grace. But I want to tell you a little bit about how I came to write it. My main character here, the person in whose voice the novel pretty much tell itself to me finally is named Grace. And she's the daughter of a, kind of a freelance holiness minister. A charismatic. At itinerant serpent handling believer. And her journey around the South with him is a kind of an Appalachian pilgrim's progress. Or maybe it is a regress through some of the darker places of the South. She tells her story in her own words for she is a believer in the Word, as she will tell us. And her story is her testimony.
As a girl, and you can tell by the way I talk, um, I'm from Southwest Virginia. And I went to such services as are in this book from time to time. I first went with an older cousin who took us over the mountain from where I'm from to a famous serpent handling church in Jolo, West Virginia. Um, mostly to scare us, I think. And this was, uh, an endeavor in which he succeeded admirably.
Later, I'm ashamed to say, I went back as a teenager with my girlfriends. And we would go and we would sit. We were all Methodists. So we would go and we would all sit real still. And then we would just die giggling as we drove back across the mountain, just thrilled to pieces by what we had seen. Later, um, much later, I had gone back to some of these churches, both in Jolo and in Eastern Kentucky as a very serious student of all things southern. And also because these earlier images haunted me, and I couldn't ever get them out of my mind. I've always been really interested in all forms of ecstatic religion. In particular, where people go completely out of themselves and are touched by the spirit, as they say in these congregations. And, uh, and you just go completely out of yourself.
[00:04:32] And I have felt always very compelled by this form of belief and also terrified. And in any case totally fascinated. And I always knew that I wanted to write about this one way or another. But it was not until several years ago that, uh, really became awfully interested in it again. I was asked by a good friend of mine, a photographer, who was from Eastern Kentucky and who was publishing, his name is Shelby Lee Adams. And he was publishing a book of photographs named Appalachian Portraits. And he wanted me to write an introduction to his book of photographs. And these are unusual photographs. They are disturbing photographs. They are photographs, uh, by and large of people who live outside the mainstream of American life, and who they could almost, some of them be taken in another century.
But I've known Shelby a long time. And, um, and I wanted to help him out. But I found when I looked at the photographs, they were very disturbing to me. And particularly, again, those images of serpent handling, because he had spent time with several different congregations over 20 years of photographing in Eastern Kentucky. And I found myself first off, completely unable to write the kind of introduction thatbut he wanted me to write for the whole collection, because I just felt like any effort that I might make to quote, "explain such lives," would be arrogant, ignorant, condescending. And I just couldn't. I mean, I couldn't write any sort of explanatory explanation. But I went back over there with him. I went to some church that, you know, I was hanging out.
And I also, um, work in Hahnemann, Kentucky twice a year at the Hahnemann settlement school, which runs a number of programs into those areas. And I, um, I wanted to write something, but I couldn't write the kind of introduction that this publisher was expecting. And so I just couldn't figure out what to do. And. Finally, I did write for him some little voices that might well have been voices of people in the photographs, uh, that with the idea of hoping to eliminate, perhaps rather than explain these photographs to urban audiences or people who were very far from the kind of place where we were and where we were from.
So I did that and, but then I kept going back and, um, I was in, I had been to a service in Neon, Kentucky. If anybody has ever been to Neon. I bet you haven't. And, I went with a bunch of the people from the group to a mall in Hazard, Kentucky afterward. And we were in a McDonald's restaurant eating those little chicken McNuggets and having this conversation about God. And it just completely astonished me. I was particularly interested in one woman who was there because she was exactly my age, which is 50. And I thought that we looked alike. In fact, I thought that we looked a lot alike and I had just seen her in a church service; [she] picked up a four-foot rattlesnake and just kind of play with it. And then, you know, put it back in its box. And there she wasn't in Chicken McNuggets with me in the mall. And I was just simply astonished, and we talked to better children. We both had children in their twenties, three children each. And finally I said to her, I said, "Listen, I can't. I have to ask you why you do this. I mean, why do you do this? This is so dangerous to take up serpents. Why do you do this?"
[00:09:06] And she smiled at me. She gave me the biggest smile. You can imagine completely free of, um, doubt or any kind of cynicism. I mean, completely sincere. And she said, "Why honey." She kept calling me, honey. She said, "Why, honey, I do this out of an intense desire for holiness." And just like, "Why don't you do it too?"
And for a minute, I couldn't remember why not. It was really, she was completely sincere and completely forthcoming. And testifying essentially to me in McDonald's. And so then I went out and talked to her some more and she said, um, this one other remark that I will never forget, she said, "And I'll tell you something else, honey." As we stood to God, she said, "I'll tell you something else, honey." She said, "When you've had the serpent in your hands, the whole world kind of takes on an edge for you."
And I just still, I get chills. I just thought, ah, and I knew that I had to write about this. I knew that that was why I had, had been coming back. And then I had to write about this one way or another. So then I began really very seriously taking notes and doing research and thinking and talking to a whole lot of people about, um, this, because it just seemed to me, here we were, she and I, the same as, and from the same part of the country and, you know, sort of facing each other at this moment in this McDonald's in Hazard, Kentucky, and yet our lives had been so completely different. And I just wondered at, at her life and the kind of journey she must've made to have, bring her, have brought her to this point. One thing I did find out which I thought was interesting before I began to write this book was that, um, so many times people who grow up in that kind of a church, a church, so full of rock hard, literal belief and intensity, they will break away when they get the first chance, they will just run like hell and take off. But then a lot of times, uh, when things fail them, one woman told me what modern life. She said, "I wasn't ever too good at modern life," which I thought was really interesting. When, when other things fail them, they will often come back. It will often be a, a circular. Spiritual kind of journey.
And so when I went to write this book, I had my main character Grace make that sort of a journey. And in fact, it's very strange, once I began to write the book, the book just simply wrote itself. And it was an experience unlike any that I've had. I felt like I had to do was show up and just be there with my little yellow pad and my pencil, and it would all happen. And it really felt like it was not my voice, but it, and it was a very intense experience for me. It just, it just wore me out, but I loved it at the same, at the same time.
[00:12:34] So anyway, I wrote this book and, um, I will read to you. I think it's easiest. Maybe if I just read to you from the very beginning of the book. I will say that, um, the serpent handling the idea of it derives from, for those of you who are curious in, and don't know this. I have fairly extensive notes in the back, and I also have a bunch of pictures and clippings that if anybody is interested, I will be happy to share with you later. Um, It derives from the key passage of scripture is in Mark 16, verses 17 through 20. Uh, and this is the verse upon which serpent handlers base their worship and and this is the, uh, following Pentecost, and. "These signs shall follow them that believe. In my name shall cast out devils. They shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents. And if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover. And they went forth and preached everywhere, and the Lord working with them and confirming the Word with signs following."
So these are the five signs that, that they believe follow believers to take up the serpents, to heal the sick. And it's often a service done with a an anointment with oil to, of course, uh, speak with, with new tongues to speak in tongues and, uh, to drink any deadly thing is something that I hadn't realized until I went back this, this last time, which is to, uh, drink poison, which is usually red devil rye or Strychnine. And you'll see it up on a pulpit in a Mason jar, and it usually is mixed with water, but none of this is a joke. I mean, this is all absolutely real and it's, um, it's, you know, that that's what to drink, any deadly thing. That's what this refers to. And actually there are very few deaths, very few deaths considering. And when somebody does die, it is usually because they had had, um, poison to drink and then they got bit, and then they didn't go to the doctor.
So, I mean, they're all those, those things in play. Okay, here we go. And I'll just read to you from the, uh, the very beginning here.
[00:15:18] My name is Florida Grace Shepherd, Florida for the state I was born in, Grace for the grace of God. I'm the eleventh child of the Reverend Virgil Shepherd, born to him and his third wife, Fannie Flowers. They say, I take after her, and I'm proud of this, for she was lovely as the day is long, in spirit as well as flesh. It isn't true, however. I am and always have been contentious and ornery, full of fear and doubt in a family of believers. Mama used to call me her "worrywart child."
"You've got to trust more in Jesus, Gracie," she'd tell me again and again in her pretty voice which has always reminded me of running water, of Scrabble Creek, falling down the mountain beside our house. "You've got to give over to Him," she'd say. "Hasn't he always took good care of us? The Lord will provide," she'd say, smoothing my long yellow hair and pressing me against her bosom where I could smell the familiar smell of cotton dried out on the line. She'd hold me until I quit crying, maybe seeing me a little song. Mama was never in a hurry when we were kids. She had all the time in the world for us, putting down whatever she was doing in order to catch us up and comfort us. Mama took good care of us, good as she could. This was not true of Daddy, nor of Jesus, either, as far as I could see. Daddy and Mama talked about Jesus all the time. I loved Daddy and Mama, but I did not love Jesus. And actually I hated Him when He made us take up traveling in his name, living with strangers and in tents and old school buses and what have you.
I couldn't understand why we had to do this while this, why this was required of us alone when other children I knew from school got to live in a nice brick house and have Barbie dolls and radios. I was full of resentment and raged against Him in my heart, but I knew better than to say it out loud, for then they might decide I was possessed by the Devil and try to cast him out as directed by Acts 10:38. I had seen this done and did not want it done to me. But I worried and worried, about everything. I worried that the Devil might really be in me after all, growing like a baby inside of me until I got so big that everyone could see, and everyone would know my awful secret.
When I think on my childhood now, it appears to me as a wild mountainside where I was lost. Often over the years I have dreamed about it. In these dreams I always have a duty—to take something to somebody, to tell somebody something—but the trees are thick and the path disappears beneath my feet. I never know where I’m going, and I never get there.
I reckon I never did get there.
This is why I have had to come back now, traveling these dusty old back roads one more time. For I mean to tell my story, and I mean to tell the truth. I am a believer in the Word, and I am not going to flinch from telling it, not even the terrible things, 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. I have entered these dark woods yet again, for I’ve got to find out who I am and what has happened to me, so that I can understand what is happening to me now, and what is going to happen to me next.
[00:19:08] And so that's the prologue and then I'll read you just the first thing here.
My best memories come from Scrabble Creek. This is where we lived the longest, in the house God gave us when I was seven years old. We had come to North Carolina from Georgia in an old car that blew up in the mountains near Waynesville in the summer of 1949. The car was a blue humpbacked Studebaker. A used-car dealer in Stone Mountain, Georgia, had given it to Daddy free for healing his baby daughter of croup. It made a funny noise but it ran pretty good until that August afternoon when it just flat exploded on a high narrow mountain road with Daddy driving of course and Evelyn and Billie Jean and Joe Allen and me crammed in the backseat and Mama nursing Troy Lee in the front. All of a sudden there came a big “pow!” noise and the car lunged over to the left—away from the edge of the mountain, thank the Lord—and came to rest at an angle against a rocky cliff. Black smoke poured out from under the hood. We scrambled all over each other trying to get out, which was hard since the left side of the car was pushed against the mountain and the right side was up in the air. One by one we jumped,
“We’re wrecked, we’re wrecked!” Joe Allen shouted, running around and around.
“Joe Allen, stop that foolishness this minute,” Mama directed from inside the car. “Evelyn, come over here and get Troy Lee,” she said, and handed him out to my older sister. Troy Lee was crying like crazy, his face bright red. Mama jumped out lightly after him, like she was entirely accustomed to jumping out of burning cars, and took Troy Lee back from Evelyn and comforted him. “Now, now,” she said. “There now.” I clung to Mama’s skirt and wished that Troy Lee had never been born, or that he would die, so that Mama would hug me.
My handsome daddy followed Mama out, yelling, “Praise be to Jesus!” as he hit the ground. For traveling, Daddy always took off his jacket and drove in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Daddy was fifty-six then, but he seemed younger, because he was so full of energy. The Holy Spirit kept him hopping, as he said. His eyes were a sharp, bright blue. His long curly hair had been turned pure white by God in a vision on top of Roan Mountain, in Tennessee, when he was twenty-five years old. “All right children,” he said calmly, “help me now,” and we untied the bundles that were lashed to the top and the back of the Studebaker and got them over to the far side of the road just before the car exploded in earnest, its hood popping off, a great plume of smoke shooting straight up in the air.
“My goodness!” Mama said. Billie Jean was sucking her thumb and Evelyn was crying. “What will we do?” Evelyn sobbed wildly. “What will we ever do now?” Daddy fell to his knees in the road and started praying. I knew he would take the explosion as a sign—Daddy was ever on the lookout for signs and wonders, which were vouchsafed to him accordingly.
“I guess we’ll just take to the tent again,” Joe Allen said darkly, kicking at our biggest bundle, the green canvas gospel tent which we had slept in before, and plenty of times at that. I wished with all my heart that it was burning up in the Studebaker. I hated it when we stayed in the gospel tent. One time we had slept out in that tent in the blowing snow. Another time, in summer, I woke up one morning and found both my eyes swollen shut from bug bites. That was in Dahlonega, Georgia.
Now Mama sat down on the rolled-up tent and unbuttoned her blouse and set in to feeding Troy Lee some more. A piece of her long blond hair had come loose from its bun and it fell in a screen across her face as she leaned over Troy Lee. The rest of us pulled back from the heat of the blazing car but continued to watch it closely as it shimmered and snapped, except for Daddy, who stayed right where he was.
“I’m hungry,” Billie Jean said, but nobody answered her.
[00:23:40] We were all hungry. We had slept in the car the night before, piled on top of each other, and breakfast had been half a loaf of white bread, hours and hours before. I’d never cry, though. I’d die first. I took pride in not being a whiner like Billie Jean. I ignored my empty stomach and looked up the dark column of smoke, past the tops of the dusty green trees, to a patch of deep blue sky. I wished I could just float away with the smoke, away from there, away from them all. “I’m hungry,” Billie Jean said again, and again nobody answered her. We knew there was nothing to eat. Mama buttoned herself back up and placed Troy Lee facedown across her lap. Butterflies fluttered around her. She smiled at us. “I’ll swear,” she said, “if it’s not the prettiest day!”
About five minutes later, a gray truck came rumbling along the road and stopped. God had answered Daddy’s prayer. The back of the truck held three boxes with hunting dogs in them, and all the dogs started barking at once. A man got out as quick as he was able. He had a long red face and a nose with a knob on it. “You folks okay?” he hollered over the sound of the fire and the barking and Billie Jean’s crying and Daddy’s praying.
“Why yes, praise Jesus, we are,” Mama said sweetly.
The man walked over to get a closer look at Daddy. “Son of a gun,” he said. He stood there in the middle of the road and waited until Daddy finished praying and got up.
“Virgil Shepherd, minister of God,” Daddy said, grinning his big grin and holding his hand out. “Mighty pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise.” The man said his name was Carlton Duty, and he was going on to say something else when the other door of the truck swung open and a woman stuck her curly red head out. “And this here is my wife Ruth,” he said. We would learn that Ruth Duty loved children, and hadn’t ever been able to have any. She had the kindest heart in the world.
“Why this is awful!” she cried. “You poor little things! You all look like something the cat drug up! I tell you what, I’ve got a coconut cake in here that we was taking over to my sister’s.” She pointed at me. “Honey, you come on over here and help me.”
So I ran right up to the Dutys’ truck, and Mrs. Duty handed me a platter holding a great big cake covered all over with little white strings of coconut, which we had never seen before. I took the cake and put it down in the road beside Mama, and then Daddy came over and sat on a rock and cut it up with his pocketknife. Though we were about to faint with hunger by then, we knew better than to start eating before Daddy had said the blessing. He stretched out his arms and set in, “Hallelujah! Oh, He’s a good God, that has led us up here from Georgia and give us His sign of holy fire and provided us a feast in the middle of the day. He’s a good God, hallelujah!” Daddy went on and on, the way he always did, but I peeped out from under my eyelids to watch Carlton Duty just standing there leaned up against his truck staring at Daddy with his mouth open. Daddy had had this effect on people before. I thought I would die of starvation before he finally hollered, “Amen!” and picked up a piece of cake.
In my whole life, I have never tasted anything to equal Mrs. Ruth Duty’s coconut cake. Even today, it makes my mouth water just to think about it! I reckon we ate like we were about starved, which we were. The Dutys came near to watch us eat, Carlton Duty smoking a cigarette and Mrs. Ruth Duty hovering around our little circle like a big old moth. We didn’t even have anything to wash the cake down with. We just ate. I thought we had died and gone to Heaven for sure. We ate until every crumb of that cake was gone, and then we stretched out our legs and lay back against the mossy bank and blessed God and watched our car finish burning up, and Daddy told Carlton Duty how we had got there.
[00:28:09] “Mr. Duty,” he said, “I preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is written in His Holy Bible, amen, and not in no other place, and I am out here on the road follering His divine plan where He said, ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ My religion is not a mouth religion, Mr. Duty. No sir. I am follering the plan of God. I will do what He tells me to do, I will go where He tells me to go, and stop where He tells me to stop, praise His sweet name.”
“But what about all these poor sweet little younguns?” cried Mrs. Duty, looking at us.
“I cannot think of no better plan for them than to foller the plan of God,” Daddy said. “These children may not have new clothes on their back nor new shoes on their feet, but they are going to Heaven with me. These children are on the road to salvation. Isn’t that right, Fannie?” Daddy asked Mama, not taking his eyes off Carlton Duty’s face, not even nodding when Mama smiled and said, “That’s right.” I snuggled over closer to Mama and the sleeping Troy Lee, while Evelyn held Billie Jean in her lap and Joe Allen poked around in the woods with a stick.
Carlton Duty swallowed hard. “Do you mean to tell me, sir,” he said, “that you-uns wasn’t even for sure where you was a-going? That you did not have no more definite destination in mind than Heaven?”
“That’s right, brother,” Daddy said seriously. “As it says in the good Bible, this world is not our home, we’re only passing through. We’re follering the plan of God, brother, and we have given our lives over to Him. He is leading us where He wants us to go, and today He has brung us to—” Here Daddy paused and narrowed his eyes and asked, “What place is this?”
“Well, you’re about nine miles outside of Waynesville,” Carlton Duty said.
“Bless Jesus!” Daddy said, reaching his arms up in the air and bowing his white head to the will of God. His left hand was still blue-black and swollen from where he had gotten bit in Clayton. “Bless Jesus,” Daddy continued, “who has showed us by the sign of fire in His holy woods nine miles outside of Waynesville, North Carolina, His plan for our life today, by freeing us from the things of this world and casting us wholly on His mercy, amen, and by bringing us His blessing as a gift of food from his good servants Carlton and Ruth Duty, amen.”
“Shoot, it’s just a cake,” Ruth Duty said in the silence that followed Daddy’s prayer.
But Daddy appeared beatified, gazing around at the smoking skeleton of the car and the thick green woods and the blooming black-eyed Susans beside the road as if he had never seen such sights in his whole life. Bumblebees droned and yellow butterflies fluttered around us.
Carlton Duty cleared his throat. He looked at his wife. “Well,” he said, “seeing as how things are, I believe I might be able to help you out. You-uns stay right here, and I’ll be back directly.”
“God be with you,” Daddy told him.
They climbed back in the truck and rattled off down the road with the dogs all barking at once. Mrs. Ruth Duty waved out the window. We sat there and watched them go until there was nothing left of them at all except a puff of dust that hung in the hot, still air above the rutted road.
Then Joe Allen came crashing through the underbrush and reported that he had found a spring, and Evelyn and Billie Jean and I started off down the steep hill after him. Down, down, down we went until we came to a deep shady spot where the spring bubbled up between the mossy rocks like a fountain. We cupped our hands and drank like we were dying of thirst, like it was our last chance for water in the world. The spring water was cool and sweet, delicious. Finally I quit drinking and raised my dripping chin and looked back up the mountain.
[00:32:32] And there stood Daddy, black against the sun. His white shirt and his white hair appeared to be shooting off rays of light behind his dark form. I did not wave or holler at him. I started playing with Joe Allen and Evelyn and Billie Jean. We built a dam, and made a little lake, and sailed leaf-boats in it. The whole time we played, I knew that Daddy was watching over us.
Heidi Groenboom: [00:33:04] Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.