The impulse to make sense of the world through the magic of story is almost as old as the Appalachians—is as old as mankind. Stories manufacture meaning. And following a writer’s life through the potpourri of stories she tells about her home, her family, her schooling, her mentors, her writing and teaching, her loves and losses, and her own complicated and hard-earned life, “still trying like crazy” to understand and to communicate the sense of it all, is among the signature pleasures and lessons of Lee Smith’s first book of nonfiction, Dimestore.
As in a dimestore or Five & Dime, many of these essays are a mere five pages, or 10. The longest essay, over 30 pages, opens the collection properly after the prologue, titled “Raised to Leave: Some Thoughts on ‘Culture,’ ” sets the stage for a portion of Smith’s subject matter and for a central theme: as Smith says, “we are raised to leave our families and our hometowns.” Nonetheless, Smith’s collection of essays is, she explains, “a love song to Appalachian culture and to this small town of Grundy and to the extended family (even as they drive you crazy!). I had a glorious childhood; it was a different life back then, when twitter meant the sound of birds.”
Although this collection begins with an examination of Appalachian culture gone mainstream, with ruminations on her experience in the small mountain town of Grundy, Virginia, these essays cover as well, Smith explains, “other places that have meant a lot to me”—places such as Hollins College, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Hillsborough, North Carolina, and Castine, Maine. And the essays also cover imaginative territory: the world of stories and books.
Smith explains that as an only child of older parents, she was more “watchful and mature.” That watchfulness planted the seeds for her vocation: “That whole experience,” she says,” made me sensitive to other people’s emotions and moods. It also gave me great swaths of time to read.” The love of reading is prominent in these essays: childhood discoveries and college lifelines (Welty, James Still) pointing a direction for Smith’s own fictional material and narrative voice. “When I first came across James Still’s River of Earth, I read it straight through and then immediately started reading again,” Smith says. “I had never seen that voice or diction in a literary novel.” Smith continues, “Writing teachers tell students to write what they know but a young writer doesn’t always know what he or she knows. A good writing teacher tries to match authors with the talented young writer.”
Smith enjoyed strong teachers in her Hollins career—Louis Rubin, Richard Dillard—but the authors she read (Nabokov, Borges, Henry James) didn’t help her find her narrative voice. “Even when we read Faulkner,” Smith says, “his grand themes of the tragedy of race and of guilt fascinated me, but they might as well have been set in France or some other country.” Smith continues, “James Still’s mountain voice and Eudora Welty’s stories set in small Southern towns helped me realize I could write from home, from where I was from.”
Nonetheless, the essays of Dimestore establish the tension between staying home and making a home, being raised to leave and finding a place to settle. “A writer is always in exile from home,” Smith says. “The minute you write about your family or town, you’re set outside the family and the town. You have to be an outsider to really see it, to create that necessary aesthetic distance.”
So many of these essays deal with loss: of a parent, of a child. Smith’s parents suffered from mental issues: her mother dealing with “bad nerves” or a “nervous stomach” and her father with bipolar disorder. The genetic manifestation of mental illness is captured in Smith’s accounts of relatives taking cures at facilities or committing suicide. Smith’s own son, treated tenderly in two exquisite essays, suffered from schizophrenia. Smith pulls the curtain back on mental illness in these pages to advocate for individuals and families seeking help for mental and psychiatric conditions as one would for diabetes or high blood pressure. “I’m a mental health advocate,” Smith explains. “I want to remove the stigma that may still be associated with these conditions. Two out of five families in America are affected by mental illness today. Creating parity between mental illness and other chronic illnesses is important.” Indeed, Smith claims that if she weren’t a writer, “I might have become a psychiatristor psychologist.”
In her essay, “Marble Cake and Moonshine,” in which she explains how the fiction of Welty and Still helped her find her own fictional direction, Smith claims that writers, as do humans more generally, write to discover or to uncover “meaning… love…home.” These three thematic talismans are the key themes of this marvelous collection, shaped by Smith’s vernacular voice and skeptical wisdom. As she explains, “Love is the most important thing. Writing is not about us but about communication. Writing is an attempt to connect, to share. We write to other people or with other people in mind—and that’s an act of love.”
Smith wonders about love and its inherent conflict: “how much can you give?” The answer in Dimestore: these essays offer readers shelves stock-full of wondrous goods. In an age, Smith fears, “of great loneliness,” these words offer what Smith thinks most essential to the human condition: “a way,” she says, “to make it through the night.”
J. W. Bonner teaches writing and the Humanities at Asheville School in Asheville, N.C.