Cbr13Bingo – Gateway
Oral History – 5/5 Stars
I don’t know what they did to this book, but the most recent covers are terrible. I love Lee Smith, and I like a lot of fiction that looks like the recent covers of these books, and they are NOT the same. This book is devilish. You should know that going in. Our protagonist is a contemporary woman living in a small town in the far southwestern mountains of Virginia. This panhandle part of Virginia is so remote that to get to most of the rest of Virginia you’d have to drive through West Virgina, or going in a big elliptical path. Ok, so our protagonist is taking a class as the local college in anthropology. Through the class she’s planning on collecting her family history and setting it down. This means looking through documents and figuring out the facts that do exist, but mainly by talking with and putting the stories of her remaining kin as they remember it. The result is a multi-voiced, hilarious, and infectious story that captures what is otherwise uncapturable about the story, the people, and the place. This is Lee Smith at her most Faulkner, both in terms of idea, language, structure, and humor.
The first story involves the bewitchment of our protagonist’s grandfather, who after narrowly escaping marrying some troublesome girls around the town and hollers, discovers a red-headed mountain witch who he falls instantly in love with. We also get the story of the sons and daughters of this pairing, and in my favorite section, we meet an Ichabod Crane type figure who comes to town all the way from Richmond, by way of the University of Virginia (and like Faulkner, UVA is a bit of a punchline for Smith) to teach the filthy youth of the town, only to fall in love with the older sister (or mostly really want to sleep with her) of one of his students. Well, you can imagine. But it’s all rendered in his ridiculous language and mindset, and while he does leave a son behind, he slowly understands he might have only barely escaped with his life.
It’s a book that is fun and funny, touching, and beautifully rendered. It’s a reread for me with a gap of about 15 years and I loved it both times.
The last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed – 3/5 Stars
This is Lee Smith’s first novel, and it’s SUCH a first novel. It’s clearly stripped from Lee Smith’s own childhood (and I am not guessing — she specifically mentions this in her memoir Dimestore, that she mined her childhood as much as possible for this book, and needing some additional conflict added some philandering and drinking. This caused her mother to refuse to sell it in the family store and to try to keep everyone in the valley from reading it too. This puts Lee Smith in the very well established tradition of a Southern writer severing bonds with family and hometown to get some minor literary fame). It’s about childhood, it’s about love and growing up, and it’s about 150 pages.
The novel takes place in a small town Appalachian Virginia town modeled after Lee Smith’s own Grundy, Virginia. Our narrator is young, sees her older sister as a princess, her mother as the Queen, and herself as not much of anybody. But she watches. She watches, she learns, and she repeats. She’s funny and precocious, she’s acerbic at times, and she’s shrewd.
Sweet Hollow – 4/5 Stars
I found this book through Lee Smith’s small collection of memoir essays Dimestore, where she talks about being in charge of a local creative writing programs after she’s published a few novels. Still relatively young, Smith describes meeting the lot of amateur writers and going through the motions a little trying to help them discover their voice. Now, I also value writing and the teaching of writing, but there’s a special kind of special that comes out of local and amateur creative writing classes. It’s a variety to be sure, but sometimes you end up with incredibly arrogant students, a lot of students who have not really thought very much about what fiction is and why it is, and then plenty of students who cannot receive help. Then, at least according to Smith, you get a student like Lou Crabtree (which is also just a fantastic name) who floors you with an opening sentence that just shows brilliant understanding (even if purely innate) about fiction. This story collection shows exactly that, a lifetime of understanding demonstrated in a small collection of stories near the end of a life. There’s better stories in here than some writers might spend whole lives chasing, and Lou Crabtree lived a full life, and there’s a lot of promise. Maybe these were the best of a much larger bunch, or maybe these were the ones Crabtree wanted to tell. Regardless, the collection is worth your time if you can find it, and especially if you want to read about the mountains of Virginia around 1930, served up to you not by an outsider.
Fancy Strut – 4/5 Stars
In her memoir Dimestore, Lee Smith was pretty underwhelmed by her second novel, which was her first venture away from biographical material, which she felt she used up in her first. You get the impression that she more or less abandoned that novel. She was working as a journalist and covered a local pageant and was inspired by how weird and wonderful the whole experience was this third novel is the result.
This novel focuses on the planning and execution of a Alabama town’s sesquicentennial celebration. It’s the early 1970s and the “Fancy Strut” in question is a local pageant. Realizing they’re in over their heads a little, they hire a pageant company to help them, and are dismayed to learn that one requirement is that the company insists that the winner of the pageant be whoever sells the most tickets. Don’t worry, they assure the planners, only a rich white girl will win. It always works that way.
The novel then spreads out its focus to several of the key players in the lead up to the event itself. We have several of the planners, the contestants, a Black militant bent of disrupting the plan, and other characters. The result is a funny, raunchy, ensemble novel that slices through the pretenses with irony throughout.