When I was in college and away from my rural southwest Virginia home, I discovered the novels of Lee Smith. Although her hometown of Grundy was a couple hundred miles west of my hometown, her writing felt culturally close to home. The people in her books reminded me of the people I grew up with, and it made my background seem more valid somehow.
Smith fell off my radar after college, but when I saw this collection of autobiographical essays in LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers selections, I thought it might be nice to read her again. These days, the American South is a topic of interest for many who want to better understand people on the margins. And I think it’s generally best to hear from people who lived the Southern experience, rather than academics and journalists who swoop in to see the quirky Southern folk. Not that there isn’t room for some outside perspectives, but I think it’s a bad idea for those voices to dominate. Let us speak for ourselves, thank you.
Smith’s book is her own personal story, not an analysis of the state of the South or anything like that. But the more stories the better, I think, and her writing shows many of the reasons people treasure their rural heritages—and the reasons some may decide to leave them behind.
Grundy, where Smith grew up, is a small Appalachian town that was built on coal. It’s one of the towns that has suffered economically from the loss of that industry, so much so that town leaders asked Walmart to come in to renew the town as part of a major rebuilding project to alleviate flooding. Smith, who now lives in North Carolina, writes of the town’s evolution, expressing both sadness for what is lost and guilty pleasure in enjoying the latte she could get in the growing town’s new coffee shop. She doesn’t present any analysis of the problem or its political implications, but her mixed feelings about the changes are evident.
One thing I found interesting was how Smith herself was a bit of an outsider as she grew up. Her mother was from the Eastern Shore—Chincoteague, another small town with a very different culture from Grundy’s—and she was regarded as “foreign” right up to her death. But she was welcomed. However, she made sure Lee got to spend time with her aunts in Baltimore and Birmingham. Her world was bigger than Grundy, which I suspect worked to her advantage in the long run. But she still saw Grundy as home:
I was not a foreigner. I was my daddy’s girl through and through, a mountain girl, a born tomboy who loved Grundy and everything about it, especially in the summertime when I was part of a wild gang of neighborhood children who roamed from house to house, ran the mountains as we pleased, and generally enjoyed a degree of freedom that it is almost impossible now to imagine.
Although for the most part, Smith’s memories of childhood in Grundy are warm with nostalgia, she doesn’t ignore the dark side of her world. Both of her parents dealt with mental illness. Her father said he was sometimes “kindly nervous,” his way of describing bipolar. William Styron’s Darkness Visible gave him great comfort. Lee Smith’s mother, too, had depression and anxiety. Both parents were hospitalized from time to time.
Smith also writes about the poverty and illiteracy in the region, again connecting it with stories from her own life and those of the people around her. “Lightning Storm” is a wonderful look at people just learning to write. But then there’s “On Lou’s Porch,” about a woman who wrote wonderful stories and poems for no one but her self. The South is not just one thing, even within one small region.
One of my favorite essays demonstrates the many faces of the South beautifully. Set in Carrboro, North Carolina, it uses the framework Smith’s taking an elderly lady friend to lunch at a sushi restaurant. Using this framework, she tells the story of the restaurant’s history and the people who’ve worked there:
Okay: Bob, Ryoko, Brian, Helen Choi, Ye-tun, Miguel, Jose, Genita, Mister Chiba, and Mister Choi—these people are Southerners. We are all Southerners. Akai Hana is a Southern restaurant, just like Pittypat’s Porch or Hardee’s.
Judging merely from our lunch at Akai Hana, we are going to have to seriously overhaul our image of the South, and of Southerners, for this millennium.
Yes, this, this is why multiple stories are so important. There’s not just one version of the South. Smith’s view is limited, but so is mine. So is yours. That’s why more stories are good. Smith’s stories also delve into her writing career, a youthful trip down the Mississippi on a raft, and the death of her son. She is a master storyteller, and I’m sorry to have missed her work for so long.