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Dimestore: A Writer's Life


Dimestore: A Writer's Life

Lee Smith’s work is much too easy to read. I mean that in a totally good way. In fact, I find her work so fascinating because, like such classic poets as Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, the words are simple and flow uniformly. Later, though, you find yourself pondering over some minor detail that she included, a moment in time so perfectly rendered that you feel as if it belongs to you. But it doesn’t, and so you will be forever changed in some small but significant way by Smith’s books. She is a writer with long-honed skills, and her heart is embossed on every page. 

Never is this more true than in Smith’s first work of nonfiction, DIMESTORE, the story of her growing up and how it has affected and influenced her chosen vocation for decades. With a decidedly unsentimental view of her Appalachian childhood, it is a real tribute to a place and time, and the world from which she came that forever gave up its best parts to her to enhance a life of remarkable writing.

"Finding a way to educate us in the ways of her homeland, Lee Smith creates a laconic adventure that we are more than happy to go along on."

Grundy, Virginia, is a very small town set right in the midst of the Appalachian Mountains, which protected them and enclosed their tiny world with majestic power. It was the place that Smith’s parents intended for her to reach well beyond as she made her way into the wide world. Yet it became the ultimate foundation for all of her seminal experiences, and it was this beautiful and resilient world that informed all of her work to come. It is the dimestore that her father ran, where young Lee tended the doll inventory and invented her first fiction by creating stories for each of the dolls. Sitting ensconced in a two-way windowed upper office, she was able to enjoy the benefits of watching the way humanity interacted, being a witness to love, anger and criminal activity. It gave her a power that relegated itself to becoming a writer, an observer of mankind.

Even while giving us beguilingly elegant stories about the wonders of small town Southern life, Smith also exposes a history of mental illness in her family that shared center stage with family recipes, traditions and the memory of cultural highpoints in the lowlands --- things like Ralph Stanley dancing on the countertop at the local drive-in movie theater as he continues on his trek to being an American icon. 

It’s such a joy to read about the simplicity of Smith’s teen years and the ways the kids entertained themselves (of course there is making out in cars on tops of hills) with a soundtrack of country music and the voices of their storytelling elders, passing their wisdom from generation to generation. However, she doesn’t shy away from the important things that happened as well, including the mental illness that sent her father to Connecticut on a regular basis for treatment and her mother to resting places through the years. 

Even with the reality that creeps in, it’s hard not to see an abandoned lifestyle here and envy it, wondering if the world really could have been such a quiet, simple and helpful place as all that. But it was in Smith’s life, and Grundy still drives so much of her values system and moral core in all of her writing.

Finding a way to educate us in the ways of her homeland, Lee Smith creates a laconic adventure that we are more than happy to go along on. It makes you want to write about your own childhood, but we thank her for the honesty and love in which she poured out her own story.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on March 29, 2016

Dimestore: A Writer's Life
by Lee Smith

  • Publication Date: April 4, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616206462
  • ISBN-13: 9781616206468