Award-winning novelist Smith (Guests on Earth, 2013, etc.) recalls growing up in a small Virginia coal town and the indelible influence that background had on her adult life.
Situated in the mountains of southwest Virginia, Smith’s hometown of Grundy was beautiful but isolated. The author’s mother, a Virginia East Shore outsider locals called a “foreigner,” was a home economics teacher. Her father, a native son, owned the local dime store, where Smith typed on his typewriter and observed clients and employees from behind a one-way office window. “It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer,” she writes. As passionate as Smith’s mother and father were about each other, they each suffered from periods of the mental illness that would later strike Smith’s son. Yet the family household—and Smith herself—managed to stay whole thanks to the intervention of dear friends. Eventually, the author left Grundy for Hollins College, where she wrote “relentlessly sensational” fiction that deliberately avoided all references to her hometown. Only after attending a reading by Eudora Welty, a woman who “hadn’t been anywhere much either,” did Smith realize that the best stories truly did come from what she knew rather than from her fantasies. In her professional life as a writer, which eventually took her to an academic position at North Carolina State University, Smith learned yet another important lesson, this time from a palsied and eccentric creative writing student name Lou Crabtree. Unschooled as she was, Lou’s work evoked “a primal world of river hills and deep forest, of men and women and children as elemental as nature itself, of talking animals and ghosts, witchcraft and holiness,” and made Smith love and appreciate her “hillbilly” background more than she ever imagined. Candid and unsentimental, Smith’s book sheds light on her beginnings as writer while revealing her resilience and personal transformations over the course of a remarkable lifetime.
A warm, poignant memoir from a reliably smooth voice.