Dimestore: A Memoir in Stories by Lee Smith
Thank you, Louis Rubin, professor of English Literature at Hollins College and the University of North Carolina and founder of Algonquin Books. Lee Smith has fulfilled the talent you saw in her: “But I do know for sure that if I am ever able to write anything real, or beautiful, or honest — anything that ever speaks truly about the human condition — it will be due to this man.”
Smith’s epiphany came at Hollins College when Rubin invited Eudora Welty to class and the proverbial light bulb burst into light. Now she knew what she knew. Smith should write “simple stories about small-town Southern life.” Then she read James Still and discovered that Grundy, Virginia, her home town, was in his novel! She did have something to write about. She quotes his poem, “Heritage,” to explain the deep well from which she writes: “Being of these hills I cannot pass beyond.”
Lee Smith was “raised,” not “reared.” People were not to get above their “raising,” but she was brought up to leave the coalfields of Southwest Virginia where the mountains surrounding her home were so steep that the sun did not shine until 11:00 a.m. She was meant to go away and find “culture.” Now, she says, it seems that every little mountain town has its festival to celebrate music, wooly worms, ramps, or hollering. Her brief list of contemporary literature set in the mountains includes Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Ron Rash’s Serena, and Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap. There is plenty of culture in those hills.
In a long career of memorable writing, Lee Smith has outdone herself with these fifteen autobiographical essays. Passages just begging to be re-read immediately in order to not lose the moment she described. Eventually, she says, one has to stop writing what one knows and “write about what we can learn, and what we can imagine…” In that way, as Anne Tyler has noted, “I write because I want more than one life.”
From the first captivating essay to the last, Lee Smith serves a smorgasbord of savory delights about her life in literature. From the little girl who added chapters to her favorite books because she did not want them to end to the woman who has written deeply intimate stories about her life, she has created a body of literature that is worthy of scrutiny, contemplation, and pure delight.
Dimestore‘s title was not picked out of the air. Her father ran a dimestore in Grundy and she worked in it as a child. It is an anchor and informed family life during Smith’s childhood. It remains a metaphor for how she writes. Standing in the upstairs window, Smith looked through the one-way mirror at all the activity in the store. She was the omniscient narrator, unseen but seeing everything.
Writing tells Smith who she is and allows her to “see” and “hear” her story. “Kindly Nervous” presents her parents’ bouts with mental illness and reveals how the family rallied around to care for her as a child. “Goodbye to the Sweet Man” is her explanation of the life and death of her son Josh due to the complications of mental illness. It is heart wrenching in its simplicity and the deep affect it had on her. Her psychiatrist gave her a prescription to write fiction for two hours each day as a way to literally write her way out of deep depression. These are not morbid stories. Rather, they are instructive to the necessity to acknowledge the issue and seek help.
If you want to be a writer, read Dimestore for it contains a primer on writing. If you are a writer, read Dimestore and see how a writer at the top of her game produces. If you are a reader, read Dimestore and you will gain invaluable insight into the structure of Lee Smith’s fiction. Someone else may fill in more facts and literary discussions, but no one will capture her essence better than she has done. This is a nearly perfect memoir.