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Friday, June 19, 2020

An Old Sharp Saw

Oral History (1983) by Lee Smith has been in my personal library for almost twenty-five years. Back in 1997, when her Dad gifted this novel to my wife - dated inscription he'd written to her on the front inside cover - I recall her talking about how much she enjoyed it. And under normal circumstances, my wife's endorsement of a book would have spurred me to read it immediately. What happened this time?

I strongly suspect that the back cover - which mentions an Appalachian setting - had a lot to do with me bypassing this book until recently. Shame on me. Thanks to Smith's formidable gifts, I'm sure I will never again question the wisdom of that old saw about not judging a book by its cover. Because even though the milieu of Oral History is far removed from my life experience, Smith's delivery of her timeless story - especially her deft juxtaposing of first and third person narration - is as masterful as it is moving.

Another element that makes Oral History worth any discerning reader's time is Smith's pitch-perfect ear for the way people from this part of the country speak. The more involved I got in the author's multi-generational tale, the more I recognized some of the patterns I'd detected in my late father-in-law's speech, especially when he was relaxed or interacting with some of his Southern family. Even more noticeable to me was the way Smith expertly captured colloquialisms I'd often heard my late mother-in-law's family use. Just like the dialogue from the great John Sayles movie entitled Matewan - a town referenced several times in Oral History - the language in Smith's book brought me close to the lives of these mountain people, folks this Northern urban/suburban boy never encountered until I fell in love with a West Virginia girl in April of 1978. 

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