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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-02-01
- Reviewer: Staff
In her first work of nonfiction, novelist Smith (Guests on Earth) explores how deep her Appalachian roots go, in this entertaining and poignant collection of Southern memories. Growing up in the isolated coal town of Grundy, Va., Smith’s world revolved around her father’s general store (the dime store of the title). She played in the rugged mountains that surrounded her home and absorbed the rhythm and cadence of mountain music and mountain-speak. She learned the art of crafting stories from puttering around her father’s store, listening to the women who worked there gossip while she invented elaborate stories for all the dolls for sale. In “Recipe Box,” Smith remembers her mother, who, even though she lived in Grundy for most of her adult life, was considered an outsider because she came from Virginia’s Chincoteague Island. Both Smith’s parents suffered from mental illness, which loomed large in Smith’s childhood, which she touches on in “Kindly Nervous,” and also tragically affected her son, whom she pays tribute to in one of the collection’s most moving essays, “Good-bye to the Sunset Man.” It’s not all serious, though: in “Big River,” Smith recounts a momentous raft trip that she and several college friends embark on, a la Huck Finn, down the Mississippi in 1966. Throughout it all, Smith weaves in her candid observations on the changing South and how she developed into a Southern writer, spurred on by the likes of Eudora Welty. (Mar.)
A writer's Appalachian Roots
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, April 2016
Reading Dimestore: A Writer’s Life is like sitting a spell on the front porch swing with novelist Lee Smith, hearing all about the kinfolk who nurtured her in the mountain “holler” town of Grundy, Virginia. In this collection of 14 essays, Smith’s voice sings out like the mountain music she was raised on, skillfully weaving together nostalgic melodies with modern insight.
Smith describes growing up in the warm embrace of her family, watching life unfold as she gazed through a one-way mirror in the office of her father’s variety store. “Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible,” she writes. “It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.”
Despite a seemingly idyllic childhood, everything wasn’t completely rosy. Her beloved father was what he described as “kindly nervous,” a euphemism for bipolar disorder, and her cherished mother was hospitalized several times for depression and anxiety.
However, Smith makes clear: “This is my story, then, but it is not a sob story.” Dimestore also contains a wealth of humor and joyful memories, such as an account of a 1966 rafting trip Smith took down the Mississippi River with 15 of her college classmates from Hollins, the inspiration for her novel The Last Girls. She writes beautifully of her epiphany upon meeting Eudora Welty and realizing that this master storyteller wrote “[p]lain stories about country people and small towns, my own ‘living world.’ ”
Sadly, the hometown of Grundy so near to Smith’s heart was relocated in recent years to control flooding. Smith concludes: “The dimestore is gone. Walmart looms over the river. I’m 70, an age that has brought no wisdom. When I was young, I always thought the geezers knew some things I didn’t; the sad little secret is, we don’t. I don’t understand anything anymore, though I’m still in there, still trying like crazy.”
Smith greatly underestimates her own wisdom—Dimestore is chock-full of it.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Lee Smith about Dimestore.