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The dimestore

Posted: March 13, 2017 4:35 p.m.
Updated: March 14, 2017 1:00 a.m.

As best I can recall – and I’ve been thinking hard about this – I have only written one fan letter in my life. 

It was two or three years ago and came after an afternoon of reading Garden and Gun magazine while waiting for my nails to dry. Rose, as she always does after she has finished polishing them in deep reddish pink, turned the pages for me, admonishing, “No, no. You no turn. I turn for you.”

A story, written by novelist Lee Smith about her hometown of Grundy, Virginia, captivated me. In the sweetest way that a wonderful story will linger in a fragrant mist after you’ve had the pleasure of reading it, her tale of an Appalachian childhood settled over me. In the old-timey church services of my childhood, people would stand up to testify at revival meeting and say, “I’m so glad I come tonight. My soul got fed.”

Ms. Smith’s magazine story fed my soul. I came home, found her website and poured my admiration into an unabashed fan letter. I would share what I wrote if I could remember it but it was gushing and, no doubt, childlike in its admiration. Which may be the reason I never received a reply.

I waited. I believed. I hoped. Finally, I gave up. Authors as talented as Lee Smith are told regularly how beautiful their talent is and they are told in words more eloquent than any I could conjure up.

In the last 20 years, I have read fewer than 10 novels. Maybe six. Perhaps seven. I am a lover of memoirs and biographies, of nonfiction stories from which I can learn and perhaps grow, so I rarely read fiction. One of that handful of novels I read was one by Lee Smith called The Last Girls. I don’t recall how I came to have it. Perhaps we shared a publisher who gave me a copy or, more than likely, I had been on book tour and was gifted a copy from a bookstore owner who enthusiastically recommended it. This I remember, though: I was on the American Queen steamboat as it pulled out of port in New Orleans. As the calliope played and the boat edged toward its Mississippi River cruise, I settled down on my bed and plunged into the book.

For three days, I toted that book throughout the boat with me. I read in my stateroom, on the deck in a rocking chair, and curled up on a sofa in the Mark Twain room. So powerful was the story she told and the words she used that, today, eight or nine years later, I remember much of the plot and the characters. When I think of peaceful days spent on a riverboat on my favorite river, I often think, too, of The Last Girls.

Lee Smith, noted novelist and professor, has finally written her memoir titled Dimestore. It is her story of growing up in the Appalachian South. Now, her Appalachian life was more privileged and comfortable than my people. Her father owned the dime store (which is what we had until the cost of living turned them into dollar stores) in Grundy. Her grandfather was the county treasurer, her mother a beloved home economics teachers (which is what we had until it became politically incorrect to teach young girls to be homemakers and stifle any seemingly larger ambitions), and her grandmother dressed to the nines each day to receive callers in a large brick home.

Of this privilege, I am not envious. I delight in seeing a town and its people of the 1950s told in such a splendid way. I love this book. It reminds me of times spent with Scout as she told the story of Maycomb and its people.

Even though she never answered my letter, I am still a huge fan.

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