Lee Smith is a wonderful storyteller, and for the last forty-five years she has been telling us stories about life in the Appalachian Mountains, a region and a people she knows like the back of her hand. Now, in Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, Smith finally shares her own story. I see that the book’s subtitle changed somewhere between its publication as an Advance Readers Copy and its final version, but I actually find the ARC subtitle to be the more fitting of the two (“A Memoir in Stories”) because that perfectly describes the approach Smith takes here in recounting her life for readers.
Dimestore begins with a straightforward preface in which the author remarks on the irony of being “raised to leave” the culture closest to her heart, the setting in which she would always feel most comfortable and welcome. But, for her sake, that is exactly what Smith’s family sought to do, recognizing early on that Smith had a talent that needed to be tested outside the confines of tiny Grundy, Virginia. A further irony is how the rest of the world finally came to appreciate the rich cultural uniqueness of her region’s people, and especially of their music and literature. Lee Smith would know, and merge, the best of both worlds.
Following the preface, Smith divides the book into short-story-like sections that provide her readers with glimpses into her life from childhood to late adulthood. She begins appropriately with a section titled “Dimestore” that recalls the role her father’s downtown Grundy dimestore played in shaping her into both the person and the writer she is today. As a girl she spent whole days wandering around the store, so familiar in that setting that she was largely invisible to the adults around her even when not observing them through the upstairs office window. She says that she “spent hours and hours upstairs in that office, observing the whole floor of the dimestore through the one-way glass window and reveling in my own power – nobody can see me, but I can see everybody!” Smith, already a budding writer, believes that this is how she “learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible…the perfect education for a fiction writer.”
Smith goes on to tell stories about the health problems, both real and imagined, her parents suffered; her education, including visits to her Baltimore grandmother for “lady lessons;” her college girl rafting adventure down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Paducah, Kentucky to New Orleans; and the people she still so clearly remembers from her years in Grundy. But fans of Smith’s fiction are likely to appreciate most the “story” titled “A Life in Books” in which she recalls her early fascination with books, stories, and writing. Here Smith reveals what being a writer has taught her about life and about herself. She says that like Peter Taylor, she “writes in order to find out what she thinks,” and that no matter what she thinks she is writing about “it is all, finally, about me, often in some complicated way I won’t come to understand until years later.”
Lee Smith admits that writing is her addiction, and I, for one, and very thankful that it is.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)