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A short memoir that’s not exactly a memoir. Instead, this short book by Lee Smith is a series of topical essays about her memoir. They tie together in the sense of their being all part of her life, but the individual parts are much more interesting than the whole. They don’t hang together, but treated separately they’re wonderful. If you don’t know Lee Smith, you should! She’s from a small town in the far western mountains of Virginia. From where I lived, you had to drive from Virginia, through West Virginia, and back into Virginia to get there. I happened to visit this town each of my high school years for wrestling tournaments and stay overnight there in the process. This meant that when I started reading Lee Smith novels in college I had this background to bear on it. What’s really fascinating about these essays then, is that partly they’re about her coping/adapting to the changes her town has gone through in her lifetime. It’s old school Appalachia there, including the hollers, the mining, the everything. So the town to get a Walmart (and actively have courted Walmart) in the early 2000s, to get a law school/college, to get other small town bougie things changes things a lot. This part of the collection is put in contrast to the Dimestore that Smith’s father owned when she was a kid.
Other essays include discussing her going to college, being a young, then middle aged, then older mother. Having a son with severe mental illness, and then dying. Being a young writer, a middle-aged writer, and then an older writer. And the relationships she’s had with other writers. It’s book that does two wonderful things: gets you to want to read more Lee Smith novels, and also gets you to want to read those other authors she’s mentioned.
“In the parlance of today, our family was dysfunctional (is any family not?) I would never become an angel, or even a saint. Instead I would grow up wild, marry young, and settle down. We’d have two boys, forming our own dysfunctional family. We’d do the best we could. Then we’d divorce, and I’d feel “kindly nervous” myself. I’d remarry. I’d try like crazy. (We all do, don’t we? We try like crazy.) My new husband and I would form our new, blended dysfunctional family.”