Lee Smith’s Saving Grace is a novel that features the story of Florida Grace Shepherd, a young Appalachian girl who is brought up in an environment that oppresses the rights and freedom of young women based on the expectations of its very religious nature. Grace, who is also the narrator of the story, tells her own tale about her quest for identity and freedom as well as her ultimate religious awakening. She shares her story as she goes through her childhood despising her father Virgil and the reality that unlike other children, she is growing with insufficient love and care from the people she expects to receive it.
Grace’s childhood is bound by religious rules and codes since her father is their community’s popular charismatic preacher and serpent handler. She is not free to do what other kids can do, and she is not even free to read anything except for the Bible. Grace and her siblings are not even allowed to read the newspaper as their father stresses that the only news they need to know about is the good news from the Holy Scripture (Smith, 2008). Grace also knows that she is an abused child.
Aside from the insufficient affection she gets from home, she also suffers painful maltreatments from her father, whom she wants to respect and adore, but he treats her with coldness instead (Smith, 2008). Because of the absurd religious limitations that prevent her from doing what she wanted as a kid, and due to the agony that she suffered from the hands of her father acting as an honorable man, Grace grows up carrying a bitter resentment toward the home she grew up in. She also becomes pessimistic about the good possibilities in life, and she grows up envying everything that made other girls of her age happy (Smith, 2008).
Smith’s ability to capture the Appalachian way of life and the reality of growing up in an environment full of bizarre religious traditions has been highly regarded by her critics. Moreover, her ability to mold characters based on the known stereotypes in the society has also made her earn the admiration of critics and readers (Town, 2004). Saving Grace is seen by many as a work filled with symbolisms reflected in the names of the characters. Florida Grace Shepherd is in itself a name full of meanings.
Florida is based on the place where Grace was born, while Grace stands for the Grace of God. Her last name, Shepherd, can be interpreted as a reminder of her family’s role as shepherds of their community since they represent the people’s shepherd, Jesus, in the eyes of their neighbors (Town, 2004) However, while this is the popular impression about their family, Smith (2008) adds an inner conflict in Virgil’s character. Although considered as a sacred and honorable man, Virgil is inclined to bed a lot of women aside from his wife.
He also seems to be incapable of controlling his emotions, particularly his bad temper and rage, which he often takes out on Grace. This sinner-saint conflict in Virgil’s character is the greatest confusion for Grace as well. Yet, despite this conflict on Virgil’s personality and attitude, he is still able to win the respect of the people in their church because of his devotion and loyalty to what he preaches. Although he can be seen as a man with normal lustful desires, his ability to strengthen other people’s faith in the Lord remains unquestionable, making him respected despite his worldly sins.
In the end, the readers would realize that the title of this novel completely explains Grace’s story. Aside from the fact that the story is indeed about saving the main protagonist from losing her faith and her strength to carry on with life, the title may also say that in all the obstacles and trials Grace faced, there is one saving grace which lifted her spirits up and made her hold on to her faith—her strong desire to repent, to change, and to believe that there is really a Supreme Being who governs and looks after her.
The ending appears to be open-ended for the author does not clearly state how Grace chose to carry on with her life. However, as she wanted to start anew, it can be inferred that Grace has met her saving grace which made her realize that being doomed and oppressed for a long time can never be good reasons to give up; rather, they are valuable lessons she can carry with her on her journey to rebuild her new life.