Dog days are upon us, those dreaded summer weeks of…
Lee Smith. Dimestore: A Writer’s Life. Chapel Hill, N.C..: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016. 202 pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life is a collection of fifteen essays, published over the span of twenty years. “This little book,” as Lee Smith called it in a recent reading in Abingdon, Virginia, is thematically anchored—as the title suggests—in the places to which Smith credits her early training as a writer. Loyal readers will recognize her descriptions of narratives built around the lives of the dolls her father sold in his store, as well as her observations of patrons from high up in the office window. As a child she watched as they shopped—and 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.”
Zoom out to her hometown of Grundy, Virginia, which Smith recalls as “filled with our relatives” who owned or ran many of the businesses, the schools, and the theatre where she learned that “place can be almost as important as personality.” It is the sense of place that she returns again and again in this collection, just as she does in her novels.
Many of Smith’s readers will relate as she discusses the complicated intersection between old and new, a common theme in Appalachian literature. For Smith, it begins with the dichotomy of past and present in her hometown. Dividing the two is the Levisa river, described as “tame” enough for a group of little girls to float downriver on homemade rafts, but a “raging torrent” when it destroyed homes, businesses, and lives. The river seems an apt metaphor as Smith journeys through her memories; indeed, “Big River” recounts her literal trip down the Mississippi with fifteen Hollins classmates, a trip which inspired the novel The Last Girls. “Suddenly,” she writes, “I had plenty of conflict brought to us by the simple passage of life itself.”
The early essays include conflicts as divorce, uncertainty, and a pattern of mental illness in her family, which Smith discusses with raw honesty. Both of her parents suffered from conditions that required hospitalizations, as described in the essay “Kindly Nervous,” the favored family euphemism for the conditions. She writes tenderly about her late son Josh, who suffered from psychotic episodes, in “Goodbye to the Sunset Man,” perhaps the most deeply personal of the pieces. She shows us the unpredictability of life with a disabled child, and the agony of losing him. But herein we see the healing power of water, as Smith concludes the essay with the scattering of his ashes from a schooner in Key West. She ushers readers through “A Life in Books,” where she reveals the “oceanic” wake of grief and rage left by her son’s death. Her doctor’s prescription: write every day. The result was the novel On Agate Hill.
Smith also describes learning to transition from writing what she knew (the mantra of writing workshops) to writing what she learned in her careers as a journalist and teacher. “I write fiction,” she muses, “the way other people write in their journals.” She compares the act of writing to an “addiction,” a “physical joy,” a feeling that is “almost sexual.” She refers to her writing self as a “conduit” and a “stenographer,” who captures the narratives that arrive in “a human voice…somewhere deep inside me.”
Smith closes the book where she begins: her childhood home that she describes with such color and gaiety. But the memories for her are bittersweet. “It’s like those awful claws beneath the festive table at my grandmother’s house,” she writes in “Angels Passing.” Her family grappled with their problems, as do all families. “In the parlance of today, our family was dysfunctional,” she admits, before asking, “(Is any family not?)”
Each of the essays examines the scope of her writing life as she negotiates her roles as daughter, wife, mother … and author. Smith reminds us that in life, as in her novels, there is neither a tidy plot nor ending. “Certainly, the linear, beginning-middle-end form doesn’t fit the lives of any women I know,” she says. “For life has turned out to be wild and various, full of the unexpected, and it’s a monstrous big river out here.”
Though Smith says she does not consider herself an autobiographical writer, these pieces are rendered in a familiar voice, one that sounds so much like those of the protagonists her readers cherish. Whether readers are aspiring authors or loyal followers of her work, Dimestore is a treasure trove of anecdotes and advice, of memory and loss, of humor and love.