“Dimestore: A Writer’s Life”
Author: Lee Smith
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Price: $24.95 (Hardcover)
Readers of Lee Smith’s many novels know of her love for the home place, the town of Grundy and the surrounding Appalachians in the southwest corner of Virginia.
With local English teacher Debbie Raines, Smith organized an oral history of Grundy “Sitting on the Courthouse Steps” in 2000. This was a great idea because the town, located on the banks of the Levisa River, was so often flooded it had to be moved! Her father’s dimestore was in fact blown up. When the physical past is destroyed, it has to live in people’s memories.
Many of Smith’s best have been set around there, including “Oral History” and “Fair and Tender Ladies.” There are 13 novels now and 4 volumes of stories.
Of course her memoir, “Dimestore,” begins in Grundy, with stories of childhood in that fairly isolated place surrounded by “mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock.”
Smith’s father, for half a century, ran the local “Five and Ten Cent Variety Store” and Lee as a child hung out there after school. Like any kid, she had “chores” such as grooming the dolls. As she combed their hair, Smith invented life stories for all of them, what would happen to them after they left her care.
She would also sit in the second floor office and look down through the one-way glass window.
She loved it: “reveling in my own power–nobody can see me, but I can see everybody.” She watched, silently, as customers argued, snuck embraces, or shoplifted! Thus, she says “I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible. It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.”
Lee’s mother was not a mountain girl; she was Tidewater Virginia and thought Grundy a primitive place, turning Lee into a tomboy, so she sent Lee each summer to her aunt Gay-Gay in Birmingham for “two weeks of honest-to-God Lady Lessons. Here I’d learn how to wear white gloves, sit up straight, and walk in little Cuban heels. I’d learn proper table manners which would then be tested by fancy lunches at The Club on top of Shades Mountain.”
“Dimestore” is beautifully written, as one would expect, and moves from topic to topic, sometimes yielding unexpected rewards.
In the chapter “Recipe Box,” she discusses her mother’s collection, and we see how a recipe collection can serve as a journal, or a time capsule. Lee’s Tidewater mother, living deep in the mountains, had saved from her youth sixteen different recipes for oysters. And her mother was a lady of her time with many bridge club dishes, all of which required “mushroom soup, Jell-O, Dream Whip, or pecans.”
Smith says “I, too, have written out my life in recipes.” There are, first, she tells us, eleven recipes using Cool Whip, then “the hibachi and fondue periods, then the quiche and crepes phase, then pasta, and now it’s these salsa years.”
We recognize the party food of our twentieth-century lives.
Readers will delight in Smith’s student days at Hollins, where she was taught by Louis Rubin who, at least conceptually, “invented’ Southern literature. We see the origins of some of her novels such as “The Last Girls,” based on her trip with Hollins classmates down the Mississippi on a raft, as well as which writers have mattered to her. She discusses at a little length the Appalachian writer James Still, now largely forgotten but whose novel “River of Earth,” she considers “beautiful and heartbreaking.”
There are many laughs here, but considerable sadness too. Smith’s father suffered from severe depression and her mother from depression and anxiety. Each was hospitalized occasionally, her father sometimes at Highlands Hospital, the setting for Smith’s novel “Guests on Earth” which features Zelda Fitzgerald at Highlands as a mental patient. The close-knit town and family would care for Lee, or run the store, until her mom or dad returned.
The saddest section of this memoir, and the most courageous in the telling, is Smith’s description of her son’s mental illness and death. Afterwards, she and her husband Hal take the sunset cruise out of Key West, a place Josh loved, and silently throw the ashes over the stern.
Lee says “Good bye, baby.” And to her husband recites four lines of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” ending: “But I always thought that I’d see you again.”
Then: “Well, I won’t. I know that. But what a privilege it was to be his mother.”
Smith hopes her story will help readers better understand that mental illness is a disease, not a failing. Reading William Styron’s powerful memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible,” had helped Smith’s father overcome the shame he felt; Smith hopes this section of “Dimestore” might help others in the same way.
Her own grief was profound. Smith was unable to eat, sleep, write or even read. She tried therapy and medication but nothing worked until a wise doctor wrote on a prescription pad: “write fiction.” At first she couldn’t but, over time, Smith’s return to her art helped her escape into an alternate world and survive the pain of this one.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.