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A Southern Favorite’s Life Story

Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

By Lee Smith

Algonquin

202 pages, $24.95

 

By Stephanie Shapiro

Only in the deep rural mountains of Switzerland, near Gruyere, can a poya painting be produced. And only in the deep rural American South could Lee Smith’s 13 novels and four story collections spring up.

Originally a kind of cattle inventory, the poya portrays cattle, a chalet and the mountains. It depicts the cattle walking in a line from their barn to the mountain pastures where they will spend the summer. If the farmer commissioning the painting wants the artist to pack too much into the space, he can negotiate away the chalet for something smaller, in one case the local convent.

Within this restrictive rubric, the poya paintings still differ widely from each other. The local Swiss poya museum displays examples of the earliest and newest poyas, all with the procession as part of a full-dress parade, and the mountaineers and cows appropriately attired. Cows with bells lead the procession, followed by others with flower wreaths around their horns.

One poya painter, who moved from Brazil to Switzerland, includes Brazil’s Sugar Loaf Mountain in at least one of his poyas, but to see it you have to know where in the panorama he has tucked it.

The poya tradition connects with Appalachian novelist Lee Smith’s newest work, her only nonfiction book except for a town history she wrote with a youth group. Smith hails from coal country – Grundy, Va., near Hazard County, Ky., and Wise County, Va. Coal dust in the river would stain their clothes black when she and her friends played in the water.

Like a poya painting, “Dimestore” portrays Grundy and other locales down to the smallest detail. A poya can only be about the springtime procession; Grundy can only be Grundy, but arranging those details is open to any number of combinations.

Smith’s publisher tells of her watching Grundy being bulldozed. It also has scheduled her to speak this spring in Grundy. So, which is it? Both. Yes, most of Grundy was bulldozed as part of a flood control project, and they even blew up part of a mountain top, but some of the buildings were moved to higher ground in the “new Grundy.”

“Dimestore” also has brought to mind a World War I infantryman’s handbook, illustrating the proper use of the bayonet. It was not enough to thrust the bayonet into the unfortunate enemy’s body, it was necessary to give the blade a good twist. Similarly, Smith has a way of making a strong point, then adding a twist.

Speaking of Appalachian culture as “more rooted” than that of other Southerners, “We still excel in storytelling – and I mean everybody, not just some old guy in overalls at a folk festival.” She could have stopped at “overalls” but gives us the social commentary of “at a folk festival.”

Her church’s Christmas festival casts her as an animal, a wise man and finally an angel, “but never the Virgin Mary.” So? This: according to the unwritten rules of life in Grundy, “The Virgin Mary could not have curly hair.” In school, she “surreptitiously picked up all the Peppermint Pattie wrappers ever touched by the football player I had a crush on, then saved them at home in little silver stacks in my dresser drawer.” Again, the crush suffices, but we also get the little silver stacks, not just anywhere but in her dresser drawer. She does not mention if they attracted ants.

These days, she keeps up on local events “in ‘The Virginia Mountaineer,’ to which I have always subscribed.” One chapter of “Dimestore” uses her mother’s recipe box to spin tales of Cousin Nellie, who had “married well,” why Smith thought all salads were Jell-O salads, and “a hearty beef and cheese casserole … named Husband’s Delight.” The finishing touch to a dressy outfit is provided by an Add-A-Pearl necklace. For those too young to have experienced this fashion miracle, the “pearls” pop into each other. Smith doesn’t waste words describing them. She probably figures her younger readers are smart enough to figure it out.

She never wastes words. Although she began writing stories at the age of 9 and selling them for a nickel apiece, she sharpened her skills as a reporter for the Tuscaloosa News in Alabama. Her “permission” to herself to write fiction came during a speech by Eudora Welty, whose tradition as a Southern writer is carried on by Smith today and also by another generation including Sharyn McCrumb and Beth Macy, fiction and nonfiction.

Her decades-long marriage to the writer Hal Crowther helps during the terrible years when her son is diagnosed with schizophrenia and, after years of semi-effective treatment, dies. Crowther sharpened his own skills, among other ways over the years, as television and film critic at The Buffalo News, where he is fondly remembered by former colleagues.

The Welty speech provides the central turning point of this memoir. Smith has left home for Hollins College: “My last glimpse of home had been my mother and two of her friends sitting on the porch drinking iced tea and talking (endlessly) about whether one of them ought to have a hysterectomy or not. Well! I was outta there!”

Later, at Hollins, the “woman with a funny name, from Mississippi” is to speak, andSmith considers not going to class. But she runs into the department head and is too embarrassed to cut class. Inspired after all by Welty, Smith experiences several epiphanies and her life changes. She abandons her previous attempts involving airline stewardesses living glamorous lives in Hawaii and writes a story “about three women sitting on a porch drinking iced tea and talking endlessly about whether one of them does or does not need a hysterectomy. I got an A on it.”

This memoir is so rich in insights, both hard-won and instant, that it might be handy to take it along to whatever waiting rooms we might be stranded in. Anyone curious about current American writers, fiction and nonfiction, can begin their reading list with the authors quoted on the jacket.

Inside, Smith writes at some length about writers – not all of them familiar – who have inspired and sustained her. When literary success sours for a while, she involves herself with a program helping adults learn to read or write or both. The participants’ successes, and the changes they were able to make in their lives by learning to read, give Smith and her career new energy.

This little book also evokes a little fruitcake a Southern gentleman gave us a few years ago that sat in the fridge forever. When I finally tasted it, it revealed the multiple times said Southern gent had basted it with rum, making the cake an outstanding holiday accompaniment. “Dimestore” is on the short side, but as rich as any rum-drenched confection could be. And no hangover, either.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.