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Lee Smith

Getting to know Lee Smith was one of the great pleasures of my years as the book review editor for the News & Observer of Raleigh. Talented, tireless and gracious, she was one reason our state’s collection of writers is a community.  

She serves others writers as much as she does the word – and the spirit.

So it is not surprising that her first work of nonfiction, Dimestore, has much to say about the native community that helped shape her, the Appalachian town of Grundy, Virginia.

Reviewing the collection of 15 autobiographical essays in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Gina Webb writes: “The title essay recaptures the sweetly unsophisticated atmosphere of a long-ago Grundy, especially her father’s five-and-dime where Smith’s main ‘job’ was to care for the dolls. Not satisfied with tidying their hair and dresses, she invented ‘long, complicated life stories for them, things that had happened to them before they came to the dime store, things that would happen to them after they left my care.’ Watching customers behind her father’s one-way glass window was ‘the perfect early education for a fiction writer,’ she recalls, rehearsals for ‘the position of the omniscient narrator who sees and records everything yet is never visible.’ ”

Webb continues” “In “Marblecake and Moonshine,” Smith recalls her first exposure to Southern literature, when she got ‘drunk’ on Faulkner and spent a day in the college infirmary after reading William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness.” She pokes gentle fun at her early fiction — stories of ‘stewardesses … orphans, evil twins, fashion models and alternate universes” — all of which ended when she discovered Southern masters like Eudora Welty and James Still. Seeing her own background in their work, Smith suddenly “knew what I knew,” and “the things of my own life occurred to me for the first time as stories.’ “

But the essays are not all sweet reminiscences. As Laurie Hertzel notes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Smith “writes about the deep strains of mental illness that run through her family; her own divorce; the death of her son; her father’s sudden death the day he closed his five and dime; how, after that, Grundy ‘turned into a ghost town.’ ”

Hertzel concludes: “Smith’s details are so piercingly remembered, so vividly set on the page, that I felt wrapped in a great blanket of familiarity. Her memoir is a warm, poignant read about a lost time and place, a love of books and a celebration of the quirks and oddities of home.

Lee Smith’s Top Ten List

1. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916).
2. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920–22).
3. The Sheltered Life by Ellen Glasgow (1932).
4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936).
5. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927).
6. The stories of Eudora Welty (1909–2001).
7. The stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64).
8. River of Earth by James Still (1940).
9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847).
10. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857).