Lee Smith’s parents raised her to leave the Appalachian town of Grundy, Va., where they “were closed in entirely, cut off from the outside world by our ring of mountains.”
They taught her proper grammar, sent her to school with delicate lunches instead of the cornbread and buttermilk she wanted, packed her off every summer to Birmingham, Ala., for “lady lessons.”
None of this really worked.
Smith adored her hometown and all of its trappings — the steep mountains, the old-timey music, the lyrical cadences and vocabulary of its warmhearted inhabitants — and she went on to memorialize it in novel after novel. Yes, she eventually moved away to North Carolina, but the coal town of Grundy stayed in her heart and informed her work all her life.
Smith has written 17 novels and story collections, and while she is loved in the South, her books deserve a wider national audience. “Dimestore: A Writer’s Life,” her first book of nonfiction, is not a particularly lighthearted book — she writes about the deep strains of mental illness that run through her family; her own divorce; the death of her son; her father’s sudden death the day he closed his five and dime; how, after that, Grundy “turned into a ghost town.” But it is a profoundly readable one.
Like her novels, Smith’s memoir is intimate, as though writer and reader are sitting together on a front-porch swing. She writes in the rich vernacular of her youth: Her father’s bipolar illness is called “kindly nervous”; as a child, Smith played “hidey-go-seek”; the mountain valleys and hollows are “hollers.”
Even as a girl, Smith wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until she heard Eudora Welty read at Hollins College and then discovered the work of James Still that she found her voice. “Suddenly, lots of the things of my own life occurred to me for the first time as stories: my great-granddaddy’s ‘other family’ in West Virginia; Hardware Breeding, who married his wife, Beulah, four times; … John Hardin’s hanging in the courthouse square.”
“Dimestore” is not crafted as a straight narrative but is, instead, a series of discrete autobiographical essays, which gives the book a jerky momentum, briefly confusing; I had to get acclimated to time and place with each chapter. But that’s a minor quibble. Smith’s details are so piercingly remembered, so vividly set on the page, that I felt wrapped in a great blanket of familiarity. Her memoir is a warm, poignant read about a lost time and place, a love of books and a celebration of the quirks and oddities of home.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.
Dimestore: A Writer's Life
By: Lee Smith.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 202 pages, $24.95.