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At last, novelist Lee Smith’s rich memoir

High time Hillsborough novelist Lee Smith, author of 13 novels and four short story collections, gives us the story of her life as a writer. She has been charming and entertaining readers since 1968, with the publication of her first novel, “The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed.”

Now, at last, we have “Dimestore: A Writer’s Life,” a seasoned, openhearted memoir, taking us from her youth in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Va., through her education at private schools in Richmond and Roanoke, Va., to her life since 1974, first in Chapel Hill married to the poet James Seay, and since 1985, to columnist and literary critic Hal Crowther.

Early on, it’s clear Smith was inadvertently – and happily – given the gift so vital to any writer: a youth spent seesawing between two disparate cultures. Her father was steeped in the culture of the Appalachian mountains (and hollers). And her mother, “a real lady from the Eastern Shore of Virginia,” was bent on “civilizing” her daughter (insisting on proper grammar and piano lessons). Yet Smith was “a mountain girl, a born tomboy, who loved Grundy and everything about it,” including its tent revivals and hillbilly music.

This gift has allowed Smith to stand apart from her characters, from their culture, from their hopes and dreams, and at the same time to write about them as if she had long resided in their hearts.

In many ways, Smith lived an idyllic childhood, surrounded by relatives, serving as “doll consultant” in her father’s dimestore and running with 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 is almost impossible now to imagine.”

In other ways, it was not. Her mother suffered “a nervous stomach,” and her father endured periodic “immense anguish” from bi-polar illness or manic depression. Later in the memoir, we learn that Smith’s son Josh, who died in 2003 at 33, was also “partly schizophrenic and partly bipolar.”

And Smith herself endured the heartbreak of divorce when her sons were young.

“When he suddenly moves out,” she writes, “I am traumatized. I am 37, old as the hills, old as dirt. My mother bursts into tears. I let my boys ride their skateboards through our empty house and eat exclusively from the Red Food Group so beloved by boys (SpaghettiOs, Hawaiian Punch, bacon, barbecued potato chips.)”

The breakup prompted Smith to apply for a position teaching writing at N.C. State, a position she held for 19 years.

Throughout, the memoir shows Smith’s spunk and spirit (her raft trip down the Mississippi with college friends, her crazy dating days). And it’s rich with writerly musings. But where she really shows her mettle is when she writes about her son Josh, a talented musician, who, when he was ill, “moved, talked, and dressed bizarrely ... couldn’t remember anything... .”

Smith and Crowther take Josh’s ashes to Key West in early 2004 and, aboard a vintage schooner near sunset, Smith sets some of his ashes adrift in the Atlantic. Waiting for the right moment, she reminisces: “But what a privilege it was to live on this earth with him, what a privilege it was to be his mother.”

Yes, Lee Smith is a writer, and without that, we probably would not have this engrossing memoir. But at heart, Lee Smith is a woman – openhearted, spirited, humble – and it is those qualities especially that inspire and make us glad as we read.

Dannye: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

Memoir

Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

By Lee Smith

Algonquin, 224 pages

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