Author Lee Smith's Memoir Is a Balance of Sweetness and Heartbreak

by Christopher John Stephens

25 May 2017

Dimestore should take its place alongside Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and King’s On Writing as a beautiful and haunting memoir about the American journey.
cover art

Dimestore: A Writer's Life

Lee Smith

US: Mar 2016

The most basic line running through Lee Smith’s shimmering, consistently beautiful memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, is the inclination to be in transit. No matter where we are, we yearn to be somewhere else. For Smith, born in 1944 and raised deep in the mountains of Grundy, Virginia, there were no shackles keeping her obliged to and restrained within the confines of Hill Country. On the other hand, she understands (as the title to her preface indicates) that she was “raised to leave”.

It’s a theme abundant in the lives and plots of fellow Appalachian authors, musicians, and artists. Does leaving mark the ultimate betrayal of the land and its people? If the hills protect, does the outside world corrupt? Through 14 nostalgic chapters covering various elements of her life and times as a woman from Grundy, absorbing everything from the tumult that came from coming of age in the ‘60s, developing as a writer, and watching the innocence of her hometown (including the eventual appearance of a WalMart replacing her late father’s old dimestore), this is a book that earns a balance of sweetness and heartbreak on every page.

For many readers, especially in these extreme times of Red State fear and Blue state loathing, where all that space between New York and Los Angeles is summarily dismissed as flyover country, the prospect of sitting down to a story about a life that started and remains still influenced by the environment of Grundy is daunting. Smith seems to understand that, which is probably why the preface to this collection of essays (most of which were previously published in various journals and date back to 1998) focuses on an early 21st century O Brother, Where Art Thou? Concert in Carnegie Hall. There, singing his chilling a capella song “O Death”, was the then 76-year-old Dr. Ralph Stanley.

His appearance, and the surprising popularity of the soundtrack, led Smith to these reflections: “Now, everybody in the region realizes that we don’t have to go anyplace else to ‘get culture.’… America as a whole is coming to appreciate and value its differences… our own Appalachian culture is as rich and as diverse in terms of history…
as any area in the country.”

Smith may not have been able to forecast the current state of mainstream American xenophobia rooted in building walls and developing alien registry lists, but the point she made approximately 15 years ago remains valid. By the beginning of the 21st Century, such revered acts as Dolly Parton were returning to traditional bluegrass recordings. Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle were establishing credibility through years of consistent authenticity. Writers like Barbara Kingsolver, and films like Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003, based on the book of the same name by Charles Frazier) were marketable. Smith argues that “…mainstream American culture has become ‘Appalachian-ized.’” Even NASCAR, arguably the most successful export from the culture, was pervasive.

It’s this question of whether acceptance and understanding from the mainstream culture results in impurity that runs through this book. In effect, cultural appropriation of the simple life, in whatever form that might take, dilutes the lessons learned about family, country, and responsibility. There’s also the issue of feeling smothered, feeling trapped. Take this line from the title essay: “Driving into Grundy was like heading into a bowl, producing that familiar sense of enclosure that used to comfort me and drive me wild at the same time when I was a teenager.”

The most remarkable accomplishment of this title essay is that Smith proves more than capable of containing the full spectrum of Grundy’s lifetime within the span of 33 pages: the movies she’s seen that taught her about the power of the human voice as narrative’ the neighbors and the way they cover their real feelings in the words they choose; the lonesome song of a train’s whistle and; her father’s dimestore, which was always the center of activity. The dimestore closed in 1992. By 2012, coming to town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a local library, Smith reflects on Grundy, which by that point had become a college town: “Viewed from the top floor of Walmart, the entire town looks like a toy town, like the train set Daddy always kept set up in the dimestore’s basement toy section.”

Another thread that runs through this book, and Smith treats it with grace and sensitivity, is mental illness. In the essay “Kindly Nervous”, she writes about how her father was embarrassed by his depression. Giving him a copy of William Styron’s slim and masterful memoir of near-suicidal depression, Darkness Visible (1990), was apparently a lifesaver for the family. Smith’s mother was also hospitalized several times for depression. This is another careful, thoughtful essay, and Smith makes clear to note that it should not be viewed as a “sob story”. She was never alone. When one or both parent was suffering, there was always the family of Grundy to fill in the missing pieces.

In “Marble Cake and Moonshine”, Smith tells the story of how she went from the adamant conclusion that “…I was not going to write anything about Grundy, Virginia, ever, that as for sure”, to an understanding that the town and the culture was worth exploring. It involves Eudora Welty visiting her class at Hollins College. It involves being introduced to Southern Literature she hadn’t even known existed, including William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness (1951). Again, it’s the smooth economy and grace Smith uses in her storytelling that makes us empathize, especially here:

…one of the most important functions of any good writing teacher is to serve as a sort of ‘matchmaker’…’fixing up’ a new writer with the fiction of a successful published author whose work comes out of a similar background…

It’s this understanding on Smith’s part that her memoir can and should serve as a guide for young writers who might need direction (whether or not they’re aware of it) that makes this an important book.

The key essay to this book, and one that will resonate long for any reader who might have even a remote connection with the disorder, is “Good-bye to the Sunset Man”, originally published in 2004. It tells the story of her son Josh, who died in his sleep in 2003. The official diagnosis was acute myocardiopathy. Her son was young, a brilliant musician, and an overall troubled young person with an official diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.

What makes this essay so strong is what permeates through the entire book: a refusal to fall into manipulative, emotional button-pushing. It will be remarkable to any reader that Lee Smith, writing and publishing this only a few months after her son’ s death, manages to carefully balance the emotions in this narrative. This story is as much a cautionary tale and a guide for those who might also have loved ones suffering from this as it is a tribute to her son. Consider this: “…All mental illnesses are treatable. Often, brain chemistry has to be adjusted with medication. If symptoms occur, go to the doctor.”

Near the end, she quotes from James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, one of Josh’s favorite songs. It’s about the loss of a loved one and the singer had always though he’d see this person again, but Smith understands that’s impossible: “I know this. But what a privilege it was to live on this earth with him, what a privilege it was to be his mother. There will be a lessening of pain, there will be consolations, I can tell.”

If all we take away from Dimestore is Lee Smith’s fierce determination and strength balanced with a remarkably sweet evocation of a time that will never return, then the writer has done her job. Smith’s voice is refreshingly humble where others might have spent more time pontificating and bloviating. Smith’s childhood was not perfect. Her parents were depressed, and it’s likely (though not concluded by the author) that her son succumbed to that illness in his short life.

That said, this book stands as a testament to the strength of the writing life. Smith’s essays are rich with nostalgia but open to the necessity of change and moving forward, of understanding that the “simple life” as might have been evoked in TV classics like The Andy Griffith Show and Hee Haw (not mentioned here but strong pop culture benchmarks of the past 50 plus years) is much more complex than we ever thought. In better words, here’s how she sums up her profession at the end of “A Life In Books”:

Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist… Writing cannot bring our loved ones back, but it can sometimes fix them in our fleeting memories as they were in life, and it can always help us make it through the night.

Dimestore should take its place alongside Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings (1984) and Stephen King’s On Writing (1999) as a beautiful and haunting memoir about the American journey.

Dimestore: A Writer's Life


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