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Dimestore: A Writer's Life
by Lee Smith

Published: 2016-03-22
Hardcover : 224 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 4 of 4 members
For the inimitable Lee Smith, place is paramount. For forty-five years, her fiction has lived and breathed with the rhythms and people of the Appalachian South. But never before has she written her own story.

Set deep in the mountains of Virginia, the Grundy of Lee Smith’s youth was a ...
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Introduction

For the inimitable Lee Smith, place is paramount. For forty-five years, her fiction has lived and breathed with the rhythms and people of the Appalachian South. But never before has she written her own story.

Set deep in the mountains of Virginia, the Grundy of Lee Smith’s youth was a place of coal miners, tent revivals, mountain music, drive-in theaters, and her daddy’s dimestore. It was in that dimestore--listening to customers and inventing adventures for the store’s dolls--that she became a storyteller. Even when she was sent off to college to earn some “culture,” she understood that perhaps the richest culture she might ever know was the one she was driving away from--and it’s a place that she never left behind.

Dimestore’s fifteen essays are crushingly honest, wise and perceptive, and superbly entertaining. Smith has created both a moving personal portrait and a testament to embracing one’s heritage. It’s also an inspiring story of the birth of a writer and a poignant look at a way of life that has all but vanished.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of March 2016: “What is it about Appalachia that so captures the mind, echoes in the ear, and lodges in the heart?” Lee Smith’s memoir metes out the answer to that question, touching on the elusive substance of Southern culture which so fascinates those of us outside of it and has inspired an entire subgenre of writing. Some of her essays ring with the raucous sounds of bluegrass, others with the sweet smells of home cooking passed down through generations--but Smith also bucks small town propriety by exposing the mental illness that plagued her family and by describing her sometimes fraught journey to becoming a beloved novelist. Dimestore is a love letter to the people and places that made a writer out of a small town Southern girl, and to the love, heartbreak, and power of creating her own stories that came after. --Seira Wilson

Excerpt

Place is paramount for me as a writer. I was lucky enough to grow up in a small coal mining town set deep in the rugged Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia, very near eastern Kentucky, and very isolated in those days. My father owned and ran the Ben Franklin dimestore on main street; my mother was a home economics teacher at the high school. I was an only child born to them late in life, so I grew up hanging around the older folks in my daddy’s big, raucous family--world-class storytellers all of them. I don’t know how many nights I fell asleep on somebody’s porch trying to stay awake long enough to listen to the story being told...so that even today, when I’m writing, stories come to me in a human voice, and all I have to do is write them down. Sometimes it is the voice of the narrator or another character in the story, but often it seems to be the voice of the story itself.

I also heard a lot of stories at the dimestore where I worked starting as a very little girl when my job was “taking care of the dolls.” Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up long complicated life stories for them, things that had happened to them after they left my care. I gave each of them three names: Mary Elizabeth Satterfield, for instance, or Baby Betsy Black. Upstairs in my father’s office, I got to type on a typewriter, count money, and observe the entire floor of the dimestore through a one-way glass window reveling in my own power—nobody can see me, but I can see everybody! I witnessed not only shoplifting, but fights and embraces as well. This I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees everything, yet is never visible. It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.

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Excerpt from “On Lou’s Porch”

It was the hot, muggy summer of 1980; I was in Abingdon, Virginia, for a week to teach creative writing class. We had already gone around the table and introduced ourselves when here came this old woman in a man’s hat and fuzzy bedroom shoes, grey head shaking a little with palsy, huffing and puffing up the stairs, dropping notebooks and pencils all over the place, greeting everybody with a smile and a joke. She was a real commotion all by herself.

“Hello there, young lady,” she said to me. “My name is Lou Crabtree, and I just love to write!” My heart sank like a stone. Here was every creative writing teacher’s nightmare: the nutty old lady who will invariably write sentimental drivel and monopolize the class as well.

“Pleased to meet you,” I lied. The week stretched out before me, hot and intolerable, an eternity. But I had to pull myself together. Looking around at all those sweaty, expectant faces, I began, “Okay, now I know you’ve brought a story with you to read to the group, so let’s start out by thinking about beginnings, about how we start a story….let’s go around the room, and I want you to read the first line of your story aloud.”

So we began. Nice lines, nice people. We got to Lou, who cleared her throat and read this line: “Old Rellar had thirteen miscarriages and she named every one of them.”

I sat up. “Would you read that line again?” I asked.

“Old Rellar had thirteen miscarriages and she named every one of them,” Lou read.

I took a deep breath. “Keep going,” I said.

“Only of late, she got mixed up and missed some. This bothered her. She looked toward the iron bed. It had always been exactly the same. First came the prayer, then the act with Old Man gratifying himself...."

She read the whole thing. It ended with the lines: “You live all your life and work things up to come to nothing. The bull calf bawled somewhere.”

I had never heard anything like it.

“Lou,” I asked her after class, “have you written anything else? I’d like to see it.”

The next day, she brought a battered suitcase. “This ain’t all, either,” she said. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

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Book Club Recommendations

Unable to Discuss
by Tbaker123 (see profile) 09/07/17
Not much discussion.
Recipe Box
by Kerrinhp (see profile) 09/23/16
The book has an essay called Recipe Box. Invite members to bring their Recipe Boxes, along with a dish made from one of their family favorites.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Unexpected Dislike"by Tbaker123 (see profile) 09/07/17

The book was written well, although I was not expecting the book to be an advertisement for the author's other writings. She has led an interesting life, but the book was not what I expected.

 
by Ljwagoner (see profile) 08/23/17

Memoirs can be very difficult to rate, but I absolutely fell in love with this one. These life stories by Lee Smith are honest, funny and hard hitting. She does not shrink away or sugar coat her deep family... (read more)

 
by Catniss (see profile) 02/03/17

 
by dlab1016 (see profile) 02/03/17

 
by Karenbrowntx (see profile) 09/23/16

 
  "Enjoyable Book"by Kerrinhp (see profile) 09/23/16

This is a nicely written autobiography. Our club enjoye discussing Lee Smith's childhood, her Mississippi River adventure, the impact of Southern writers on her career, and the history of mental illness... (read more)

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