DIMESTORE: A WRITER’S LIFE
by Lee Smith
Algonquin | 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
Review Source: Personal copy
I was born in a rugged ring of mountains in southwest Virginia- mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock. My Uncle…used to predict the weather by sticking his head out the window and hollering back inside, ‘Sun on the mountaintop’! – Lee Smith
Author Lee Smith extends an offer to join her on the porch swing to share intimate details of her life growing up in the heart of coal-country of southwest Virginia. Known for her fictional down-home Appalachian characters in popular fiction such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Dimestore: A Writer’s Story is her first work of nonfiction. Smith lets us know right away that Dimestore is more than a memoir. As the sub-title tells us, it is a writer’s story.
She begins by leading us by the hand into the mountains, down the side trails to hollers and into town where we share her love of the mountain music and the old time religion steeped into the souls of the people. She introduces us to, later famous, musicians that she knew as just “local talent”. It’s not long before you want to be adopted into the larger extended family… a family that accepts you warts and all.
We step inside her father’s Five and Ten Cent Variety Store and peer with her through the one-way window as she sees life in its most candid moments.
Upstairs in my father’s office…[I stood] observing the whole floor of the dimestore through the one-way glass…Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator…it was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.
We chuckle with her at her mother’s desperate attempts to tame the tomboy and provide instruction on lady-like behavior..often involving extended trips to genteel family members …[Mom would send] me down to Alabama every summer for Lady lessons.
And I will admit that the lengthy list of southern cooking treats prized by Mama and her bridge club made me hungry.
But there is a darker side to her life that will surprise you. Both of her parents suffered from mentally debilitating illnesses. Smith turned to intense reading, writing and usually a dog when her parent’s frailties would leave her lonely and dislodged while they were away at local hospitals.
About midway through the book, Smith shifts away from anecdotal stories and introduces the teachers and mentors, not the least of these being the author, Eudora Welty, that help her develop as a narrator of characters gleaned from her own cultural background.
I will admit that I enjoyed the first half of the book more… it is rich with life stories and portraits of small town life that resonated with my own small town past. But for aspiring writers or those curious about what draws some people to a life of imagination and storytelling, this book will perhaps tickle a budding idea that will lead to your own short story or the next great novel.