Review of Lee Smith's Saving Grace

Saving Grace
Lee Smith
New York: Ballantine, 1995.

Author Bio
See Oral History review

Plot Description
The novel is the fictional journal of Grace Shepherd, a middle-aged woman from Appalachia looking back on her life.  Grace’s father, Virgil, is a traveling Holiness preacher who handles snakes. The Shepherd family follows him around and support his ministry. Her mother even handles hot coals. Grace, meanwhile, believes in Jesus but hates Him and resists what she interprets to be the Holy Spirit.

The Shepherd family settle for a time in Scrabble Creek where Virgil establishes a ministry which garners a large following. Despite this, things gradually disintegrate for the Shepherd family. Two of Grace’s siblings reject the family’s religious practices and “rescue” a third sibling who is denied medical treatment. Following this, Lamar comes to the Shepherd family. He tells Grace he is Virgil’s son, but hides this from the rest of the family, ultimately becoming Virgil’s right-hand man. At the same time, Lamar seduces Grace, and there is some suggestion that he does the same to Grace’s mentally disabled sister and her mother. At the same time, Virgil’s infidelities come to light and devastate Grace’s mother, Fannie. During an eventful homecoming service, several parishioners are bitten by snakes, Grace loses her virginity to Lamar, Fannie commits suicide, and Lamar steals the Shepherds' car and savings. The events force Virgil to go on the road again, and he takes Grace with him.

While on the road, Grace is exposed to Virgil’s tendencies to “backslide” more fully. In the end, he abandons Grace in a trailer at the behest of his new lover. Travis Wood and his sisters eventually take Grace in. Travis Wood is also a preacher, and while he was initially enthusiastic about Virgil’s practices, he is much more controlled and restrained. Despite the significant age difference between Travis and Grace, they begin courting and get married. Grace remains resolute in her rejection of the Holy Spirit, refusing to be saved, but pretends she has already been saved.

The restricting life of a preacher’s wife begins to make Grace restless, and when a handsome young man comes to paint her house, they begin an affair.  Travis discovers the affair and Grace leaves him and her daughters to live with the painter, Randy Newhouse.  Grace marries Randy, but the relationship soon loses its excitement for Randy who begins an affair with another woman.

Feeling lost, Grace retreats to the house at Scrabble Creek. There she begins her journal. The spirit of her mother visits her and encourages to come to her and to come to Jesus.  Grace decides to stop resisting the Spirit, and takes up hot coals just as her mother had done. The novel ends as Grace leaves the house at Scrabble Creek for good. It is not entirely clear what Grace’s plans are, but there is some indication that she will go to church and follow Jesus, though in a way that differs from both her father and Travis.

Pentecostal Elements
Within much of the Southern United States, there is a great deal of slippage between the identifiers “Pentecostal” and “Holiness.” While there may be formal theological differences between the two groups, there is often a blending that happens in practice, making it difficult to establish a clear boundary. Churches often use both identifiers. As a result, though the word “Pentecostal” does not appear in the novel, the Holiness practitioners in the novel are nearly indistinguishable from Pentecostal practitioners in Appalachia.

The first half of the novel, while Grace is still with her father, is full of descriptions of ecstatic religious experiences. Characters often speak in tongues, dance in the spirit, fall out in the spirit, prophecy, etc. The more lengthy descriptions are given to rarer practices like snake handling or holding hot coals. The depiction of these practices are consistent with anthropological descriptions. This is not surprising since Smith notes that she consulted these works and even participated in writing one that was released around the same time as the novel. The novel links the Holy Spirit to wind.  This is primarily a Biblical metaphor, but one that is frequently used in Pentecostal contexts.

As with many novels depicting Pentecostalism, there is a clear relationship between sex and ecstatic religious experiences.  Grace, herself, makes these connections explicit (as does Smith in interviews). There are parallels in the language used to describe both experiences as well.

Less a Pentecostal element and more of a broad Evangelical element, Grace often frames the dramatic events of her life as moments of salvation where she is born again. Though American Literature is replete with moments of epiphany which lead to rebirth, Grace’s language is distinctly evangelical, even when she describes leaving her husband to begin an affair with Randy Newhouse.

Critical Response

Reviews of Saving Grace have been mixed. For example, Dennis Covington (author of Salvation on Sand Mountain) praises the novel in a Washington Post review for “cloth[ing] the spirit with flesh.” Meanwhile, in a New York Times review, Gregory Blake Smith suggests Lee Smith relies too heavily on clich├ęs for her plot and characters.

Most scholars who write about the novel have focused on gender roles as they relate to spirituality. Linda Byrd-Cook argues that Grace adopts a form of goddess spirituality by the end of the novel, and that the novel promotes this kind of spirituality over Christianity of any kind. Similarly, Paula Gallant Eckard argues that there is a clear division of male and female spirituality, but that Grace is able to somehow merge the two and find a common ground by the end. She uses feminist psychoanalysis to frame her critique. Both scholars seem to enhance the contrast between genders and spiritual practices in order to support their claims.  Joan Wylie Hill takes a more balanced approach and argues that Grace’s epiphany leads her back to snake-handling churches rather than to a distinctly female spirituality. Hill draws on previous critical responses to Smith as well as interviews with the author. Jacqueline Doyle presents perhaps the best paper to date on the novel, sussing out all of the allusions to Biblical and classical literature. She determines that the ending is vague and indeterminate, and that is what lends power to the female voice of the story. Doyle puts Saving Grace alongside works by Sheri Reynolds, Jeannette Winterson, and Marilynne Robinson, suggesting all of the novels attempt to establish a female voice within and beyond current institutionalized religion.

Byrd-Cook. “Reconciliation with the Great Mother Goddess in Lee Smith’s Saving Grace.” Southern Quarterly 40.4 (2002): 97-112.

Covington, Dennis. "Grits and Magic." Rev. of Saving Grace. The Washington Post. 28 May 1995. X01.

Doyle, Jacqueline. “‘These Dark Woods Yet Again’: Rewriting Redemption in Lee Smith’s Saving Grace.” Critique 41.3 (2000): 273-289.

Gallant Eckard, Paula. Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2002.

Smith, Gregory Blake. "Snakes of God." Rev. of Saving Grace. New York Times Book Review 9 July 1995. 7.

Wylie Hall, Joan. “Arriving Where She Started: Redemption at Scrabble Creek in Lee Smith’s Saving Grace.” The Pembroke Magazine 34 (2002): 91-9.