When Lee Smith’s new memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, was published I was thrilled. I first encountered Smith when I read her epistolary novel, Fair and Tender Ladies, and remember being hesitant about reading it, thinking that it would be impossible to get engaged in a story told only through letters. How wrong I was since this book began my love affair with Lee Smith’s writing and her portrayal of the Appalachian South. Her spot on sense of place and her honest portrayal of Southerners has earned her a place in the hearts of many readers who have also loved books by Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, Gail Godwin, Ron Rash or Eudora Welty.
Smith’s memoir is filled with essays which build, giving the reader a clear insight into how and why she writes the way she does. From her childhood in a hardscrabble little Appalachian coal town as the beloved only child of a teacher and dime store owner, she depicts holidays and family events with her cousins and lolling away hot summer days playing in the creek. The effects of her mother’s and father’s mental illnesses and the heart wrenching challenges of having a son also afflicted with schizophrenia draws you into her life as she paints a touching and moving picture of growing up in the South and shares some of the challenges, tragedies and joys she has experienced over the years. As with most people, her life has had both wonderful and tragic ups and downs, but, in her case, it has enriched her stories with compassion, empathy and lyricism.
It’s hard to describe how much I love her books. Smith’s prose is so personal that I always come away feeling as if I have spent a wonderful afternoon with a good friend, and this time, I felt as though she had shared such intimate parts of her life with me, things you might only confide in someone close to you and I feel quite honored to be in that category.