The Last Girls: Same River Twice(Lee Smith on writing The Last Girls)
Sometimes life is more like a river than a book.
Exactly thirty-six years ago, I went down the Mississippi River on a raft with fifteen other girls. Inspired by reading Huckleberry Finn in our American literature class at a women's college in Virginia, we launched the Rosebud Hobson at Paducah, Kentucky, on June 9th, 1966, headed nine hundred and fifty miles down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The Rosebud Hobson was a forty-by-sixteen foot wooden platform built on fifty-two oil drums and powered by two forty-horsepower motors. It cost us eighteen hundred dollars to build. We had a superstructure of two-by-fours with a tarpaulin top that we could pull over it, mosquito netting that we could hang up, and a shower consisting of a bucket overhead with a long rope attached to it. The raft was named for an early Hollins College alumna from Paducah, a pianist whose European career had involved some mysterious "tragedy," according to her sister, Miss Lillian Hobson, who entertained us before the launch.
Our captain was a retired riverboat pilot named Gordon S. Cooper, age seventy-three. We painted rosebuds all over the raft and sang, "Goodbye, Paducah" to the tune of "Hello, Dolly" as we left. In fact, we sang relentlessly all the time, all the way down the Mississippi.
We sang in spite of all our mishaps and travails: the tail of a hurricane that hit us before we even got to Cairo, sending the temperature down below forty degrees and driving us onto the rocks; a diet consisting mostly of tuna and doughnuts; the captain's severe sunburn; mosquito bites beyond belief and rainstorms that soaked everything we owned. If anything really bad happened to us, we knew we could call up our parents collect, and they would come and fix things. We expected to be taken care of. Nobody had ever suggested to us that we might ever have to make a living, or that somebody wouldn't marry us and then look after us for the rest of our lives. We all smoked cigarettes. We were all cute. We headed down that river with absolute confidence that we would get where we were going.
We worked and fished and played cards and talked and talked and talked. It was wonderful. In between stints as cook and navigator, I was writing my first novel. I had it all outlined, and every day I sat down crosslegged on deck and wrote five or six pages of it, on a yellow legal pad. I followed my outline absolutely. In creative writing class, I had learned how plot works: beginning, middle, and end; conflict, complication, and resolution.
Huck, our inspiration, was an American Odysseus off on an archetypal journey--the oldest plot of all. According to the archetype, the traveler learns something about himself (not herself) along the way. What did I learn? Not much. Only that if you are cute and sing a lot of songs, people will come out whenever you dock and bring you pound cake and ham and beer and keys to the city, and when you get to New Orleans you will be met by the band from Preservation Hall on a tugboat, and showered by red roses dropped from a helicopter, paid for by somebody's daddy.
In all my yellowed newspaper clippings, the press refers to us as "girls;" today, of course, they'd call us "women." We were the last girls. In 1966, a lot of things were changing for good, though we didn't know it yet. More possibilities and opportunities for women would bring greater expectations and responsibilities--along with a lack of both stability and illusion. Whatever happened to romance, for instance? or the sacred Fifties Family?
Myself, I've kept on writing ever since college. Mostly I've found my subjects in the Appalachian mountains where I grew up, influenced by strong mountain women whose stories I've tried to tell. But more recently, at a literary festival someplace in the South, a tipsy book club member about my age buttonholed me: "Why don't you write about us?" she demanded. Her question hit me with the force of revelation. Okay, I thought, okay. Time to get back on that raft.
Since it's always easier for me to tell the truth in fiction, The Last Girls is a novel. A tragedy has brought four of the original "girls"--plus one husband--back together for a repeat voyage under very different circumstances, on the luxurious steamboat Belle of Natchez. I'm trying to examine the idea of romance, the relevance of past to present, the themes of memory and desire.
For me--and for most of us on the real raft, I suspect--it was the only journey I ever made which ended as it was supposed to. Subsequent trips have been harder, scarier. We have been shipwrecked, we have foundered on hidden shoals, we have lost our running lights. The captain is dead. I can't stick to a traditional plot anymore. Such a plot is more suited to boys' books anyway. Certainly, the linear, beginning-middle-end form doesn't fit the lives of any women I know. For life has turned out to be wild and various, full of the unexpected, and it's a "monstrous big river" out here.