Isn’t it hard to review a book you truly loved? Oh my, where do I start? First, by admitting I’ve only read one of Lee Smith’s novels–Oral History and I read that clear back in Peace Corps in 1990 or so! You can bet I’ll be making up for lost time–as I suspect will others who loved this memoir. Only it isn’t really a traditional memoir–its a series of essays on her writing, her life, her education and her family. So, a memoir, told in small bytes of memory.
I was drawn in immediately by the way she talked of her writing and her learning about writing–of her English teacher:
Here I encountered the terrifying Miss Nellie Hart, with her bright white hair, foghorn voice, and beautiful skin, who could diagram any sentence, even sentences so complex that their diagrams on the board looked like blueprints for a cathedral.
I can picture here an English class version of that famous scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind:
I think that bit about the “blueprints of a cathedral,” is fabulous! But I also discovered, later in the book, that it must be one of those “darlings” we aspiring writers are told to kill for she used the same story about her English teacher again in another essay–Not, of course, That There’s Anything Wrong With That. Heck, I would–it makes the reader see exactly what she needs, and wants, them to see.
I was drawn in, too, by her reading as well. That she named several of my favorite books (GWTW, Marjorie Morningstar, Little Women and others) was again the great moment of finding a Kindred Soul. But imagine: Her mother comes from Chincoteague Island and….wait for it….Marguerite Henry and her illustrator, Wesley Dennis, stayed at her Grandmother’s boarding house while working on Misty and Sea Star!
Her family’s story is one I could relate to well. This book is a collection of memories, so of course she tells her family’s story. How poignant. She was never pitying, never pitiful, never depressing though it is a story of terrifying vividness. No, not the Glass Castle kind of terrifying. But one of the then-shame of mental illness. But, oh… That. Lunch. Perfect. Yes, I’m vague-blogging. I don’t want to spoil a moment of it for you! How I wish someone could have given me that–for the very same reason. That is what holistic medicine is all about. Perfect. Yes, I know I’ve already said that. Perfect.
So many, many wonderful small things–the Lady Lessons, the Raft Trip (the real one as well as her book, The Last Girls) enhance these stories, but it’s the celebration of Appalachian culture–juxtaposed with her mother’s ideas of culture–that gives this book its true beauty. The same culture that gave us Hillbilly Elegy on today’s best-seller list, also has given us much fabulous literature. The people of the book, Christy (later made into a t.v. series) were the grandparents of Lee Smith’s world. I loved how the fun movie, Brother, Where Art Thou, has such a role in her life–so fun to read about that. I could feel the mosquitoes at the drive-in and smell the hotdogs and popcorn at the snack bar!
Long ago, in the excellent PBS series, the Story of English, they remarked how West Virginia and a few other southern areas like the Islands off the Carolinas had kept a form of English almost like the King James Bible. We hear remnants of that even today. It is this culture, this language developed in a a world before Wal-Mart, before consolidated schools, before tv didn’t require “reception” and well before Wi-Fi and the internet that is celebrated. Nothing was more interesting in this story than the writers she met in her writing classes. Wow. Wow.Wow. Yes, people living near or working in coal mines CAN have and impart culture. So can those in Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia and throughout West Virginia. It’s not only Mississippi that produces writers!
This book is a true gem. Don’t miss it.
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith–currently $1.99 for Kindle (as of 1/26/2017)