The inaugural Southern Lit: “Strange Fruit” by Lillian Smith
Since being awarded a Lillian E. Smith Foundation Writer-in-Service Residency, I thought I ought to read Strange Fruit. I’m not much a novel reader; I like nonfiction and poetry more than fiction. I had already read Killers of the Dream, but had not read Strange Fruit, which is Lillian Smith’s most well-known book. Killers of the Dream blew me away with its stark assessment of Southern hypocrisy, along with all of the detailed ideas on the psychological impacts of that hypocrisy. Well, I finished the novel Strange Fruit last week and have had some time to reflect on it.
Smith’s very psychological style in this novel created an ethereal tone, often by closely commingling third-person narration with slipping back and forth and in and out of second person voice, while continuing to use the standard first person voice of each character within dialogue. Also, her use of italicized stream-of-consciousness thoughts (often punctuated in a stunted manner with dashes and ellipses) that are interspersed with real-time narration and dialogue allows the reader to see the dualities between the thoughts that characters have and the ones they allow other people to see. I was really amazed by modernistic artistry of the novel.
Strange Fruit also utilizes a very complex array of characters, who seem to be only loosely connected to each other – even in the cases of husbands and wives, like Tut and Alma Deen – which gives the characters a sense of being connected and disconnected simultaneously. Each character can also be seen as a symbol of some type of small-town Southerner, some type of person we all know, and contributing factor to the horrible events that unfold in Maxwell, Georgia. Lillian Smith’s realism creates a story where almost no one is really likable, because we get to see so many sides of each characters through the lens of so many other characters who know them — for example, we get to know the quiet and somewhat sheltered African-American college graduate Nonnie through the eyes of her ne’er-do-well white lover, her realist sister, her angry brother, her forlorn admirer, and her condescendingly appreciative employer, among others. Other examples of the novel’s immense complexity lay in the difficult relationships, like Alma Deen’s rejection of her first-born son Tracy who she now wants to behave according to society standards and her subsequent coddling of her second child Laura, the over-achiever who intimates that she rails against her mother’s smothering and also that she may be a lesbian.
While I enjoyed and admire this novel, Strange Fruit is not for everyone. For all of its artistry and insight, the subtle, somewhat foggy narration style would turn off some people. I got a lot out of it, personally, including getting to witness another piece of Lillian Smith’s work. She was an incredible thinker who insisted on true righteousness.