Rolling down the river
College raft trip inspires Lee Smith's fictional river reunion
Growing up in a small Appalachian town in Virginia, author Lee Smith describes herself as being a "deeply weird" child. With an incredible passion for books and reading, she devoured novels like The Secret Garden and Heidi and loathed letting go of her favorite characters so much that she wrote new endings to keep the story alive. By age 8, she had written her first novel (Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell head West and become Mormons) and at age 9, she was selling stories to neighbors for a nickel.
Although she was "a terrible student," she enrolled in Hollins College, a small women's college in Virginia, and the intense writing program proved to be a turning point. "I always felt like I was so weird, and suddenly I was thrown in with these other girls who were just like me! It was like going to heaven," Smith says during a phone call from Maine, where she frequently vacations.
The formative college years propelled Smith into a career as an author (Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History) and provided the real-life adventure behind her new novel, The Last Girls, which tells the story of four women who braved the mighty Mississippi on a raft during college. The book is fiction, but for Smith, the raft trip was real. Surrounded by women who loved books, it's no surprise that after studying Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in a literature class, one enterprising student declared, "We could do that!" and the trip was on—Smith and 15 of her college gal pals would float down the Mississippi River in the summer of 1966. The girls constructed a 40 x 17 foot "floating porch" made of a wooden platform on oil drums and hired a 73-year-old retired riverboat captain to navigate. The raft took 18 days to travel the 950 miles from Paducah, Kentucky, to New Orleans.
"We would have gotten there sooner, but we had some mishaps, as you can imagine," Smith says, recalling the drenching rainstorms, mosquito bites and even a brush with a hurricane.
The romance of the river they remembered from Twain's fiction dissipated somewhat with the reality of too much work and muddy waters. "You couldn't just jump off and have an idyllic little swim when you wanted," says Smith, "and we got way too much media attention." Greeted and photographed at each stop, Smith describes this as the era of the "last girls," the last of the pre-feminist generation.
Smith always knew she would find a story in her great adventure, but she laughs, "I only had to wait 30 years to see what the meaning of that was for me." It turned out that Twain needed an update. The idea of traveling downriver on a raft and reaching a profound destination "is not a metaphor for any women's lives that I know," Smith says. "Our lives are not that linear. That's more the plot of a boy's book."
Instead, she started thinking about how the past affects the present and how expectations rarely match up with reality. "It's all about the journey rather than the destination for women's lives," she says. "In many ways that can make a much richer journey full of many more events and multiple meanings."
Smith's novel, The Last Girls, explores the twists and turns life took for the friends who traveled the Mississippi River in the '60s as they reunite to cruise the river again, this time on the luxurious Belle of Natchez steamboat. Thirty-five years after the first trip, the women, now in their 50s, will spread the ashes of fellow rafter Baby Ballou, who recently died. Building each character by weaving in and out of their memories, we meet Anna Todd, a famous romance novelist; Courtney Gray, a scrapbook-obsessed socialite; Catherine Wilson, a sculptor in an unhappy marriage; and Harriet Holding, a smart but timid teacher who wonders where her nerve went. The flashbacks are both wistful and brutal as memories of the dramatic, free-spirited Baby Ballou open Harriet's eyes to the possibilities she never dared to explore.
"My husband [writer Hal Crowther] read this book and said, 'You are each one of these people.' There's a lot of me in each [character]," Smith admits, though she claims she's most like the orderly, care-taking Harriet. Maybe that's because she went through her "Baby wannabe" days in college, describing those years as a "breakout period—I just went wild." Even while busting loose, Smith showed her literary side: She and fellow author Annie Dillard performed as go-go dancers in the all-girl rock band the Virginia Woolfs. "Yeah, we were go-go dancers," she says, quickly adding, "but it was much less exciting than it sounds."
Baby Ballou permeates The Last Girls, and she's one of those irresistible characters that leap off the page. Her story is told via poetry, and Smith, who had never written poetry, "just went crazy," writing 50 or 60 poems for the vibrant character and reveling in the "freedom from having to tack everything down so securely" as a novelist. "There was this part of me that was just dying to write poems," she says.
Maybe the river provided the inspiration. She wrote the poems cruising down the Mississippi on a big steamboat similar to the one in The Last Girls. She traveled from Memphis to New Orleans with her husband in tow. "I made him go with me, even though he's claustrophobic and hated the idea of being stuck on a boat."
Smith still keeps in touch with some of the college buddies from her own Mississippi adventure and sent several of them a copy of The Last Girls. She laughs at the idea of organizing her own reunion cruise, though, saying "I don't think so."
True to form, Smith would rather spend a vacation devouring a suitcase full of books. Already "reading around" her next novel—which is set in the Piedmont area of North Carolina in the years right after Civil War—she has a new addiction. "It's like heroin," Smith says, with a drawl you can't resist. "You start reading about the Civil War, which I'd never given a damn about frankly, but it's just fascinating."