BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, April 2016
Reading Dimestore: A Writer’s Life is like sitting a spell on the front porch swing with novelist Lee Smith, hearing all about the kinfolk who nurtured her in the mountain “holler” town of Grundy, Virginia. In this collection of 14 essays, Smith’s voice sings out like the mountain music she was raised on, skillfully weaving together nostalgic melodies with modern insight.
Smith describes growing up in the warm embrace of her family, watching life unfold as she gazed through a one-way mirror in the office of her father’s variety store. “Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible,” she writes. “It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.”
Despite a seemingly idyllic childhood, everything wasn’t completely rosy. Her beloved father was what he described as “kindly nervous,” a euphemism for bipolar disorder, and her cherished mother was hospitalized several times for depression and anxiety.
However, Smith makes clear: “This is my story, then, but it is not a sob story.” Dimestore also contains a wealth of humor and joyful memories, such as an account of a 1966 rafting trip Smith took down the Mississippi River with 15 of her college classmates from Hollins, the inspiration for her novel The Last Girls. She writes beautifully of her epiphany upon meeting Eudora Welty and realizing that this master storyteller wrote “[p]lain stories about country people and small towns, my own ‘living world.’ ”
Sadly, the hometown of Grundy so near to Smith’s heart was relocated in recent years to control flooding. Smith concludes: “The dimestore is gone. Walmart looms over the river. I’m 70, an age that has brought no wisdom. When I was young, I always thought the geezers knew some things I didn’t; the sad little secret is, we don’t. I don’t understand anything anymore, though I’m still in there, still trying like crazy.”
Smith greatly underestimates her own wisdom—Dimestore is chock-full of it.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Lee Smith about Dimestore.