Lee Smith, author of Oral History, Fair and Tender Ladies, and On Agate Hill s a beautiful memoir consisting of essays on aspects of her life.
Lee paints a warm and nostalgic portrait of growing up in a loving, supportive, yet dysfunctional family in Gundy, Virginia. Her father ran the dimestore in town. A later visit to the city reveals the changes that occurred over the years. Grundy, on the flood plain, had been literally moved to high ground. Wal-Mart was invited in, and was followed by other chains. Her beloved mountain where she ran wild as a girl had been top-mined, now a naked mesa with a city park.
The essays are far ranging, from her mother's recipe box, which included Pine Bark Stew and Cooter Pie, to her father's bipolar illness and mother's recurring depression and anxiety, learning to be a 'lady' at her aunt's city home, love life, and teaching career. Lee tells about hearing Eudora Welty read A Worn Path, then reading all her works until "a lightbulb clicked" about writing what you knew. I was enchanted to meet Lou, an eccentric but gifted writer who showed up at a writing workshop,
I was especially moved when she wrote about her son, a brilliant musician who developed a mental disorder that required medication to keep him stabilized for a diminished life, but still one that mattered.
Lee writes about books and reading, writing and teaching, love and the end of love. It was a lovely read. I read a chapter each night before bed, never more, drawing out my pleasure.
I received a free book in a giveaway from David Abram's blog The Quivering Pen.
Anne's optimism and ability to find beauty and joy under duress can teach us all.
Anne's small community was in extraordinary circumstances that put normal family and community bonds under abnormal stress. They were in fear every day. There were no external activities and relationships to diffuse negative energy, no ability for a nice walk and have friendly conversation with neighbors. Normally, Anne would have had girl friends undergoing the same changes. She only had her diary Kitty.
"It's an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary...because it seems to me that neither I--nor for that matter anyone else--will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart." Saturday 20 June, 1942 from The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Early in the diary Anne admits her life would not be particularly interesting. And several book club members, both male, admitted that it was tedious for them to slough through all the petty family drama Anne wrote about. Had it not been for the special circumstances and Anne's tragic end they would not see the point of reading a teenager's diary.
I reflected on those comments in the back of my mind as the group shared their thoughts.
Anne addresses universal experiences with no self consciousness about what she exposes. Readers can connect their own experience and realize how 'normal' we all are. For such a young writer, she had an extraordinary self-awareness, a masterly command of language, and an unusual drive for personal growth.
Her discussion of her sexual growth and awareness she anticipates the feminist attitude of the 1970s when women were encouraged to explore their own bodies and accept their sexuality. Here is Anne discussing anatomy with a boy at a time when my mother was given no real information about sex, except advice that 'boys give love to get sex, and girls give sex to get love." Mom went on her honeymoon in total ignorance. Anne knows she is not 'in love' but finds pleasure in physical closeness and will not call it wrong.
When I had finished reading the diary I watched My Daughter, Anne Frank which I enjoyed very much. Anne's childhood friends talked about Anne, including 'boyfriends'. One saw her through the fence when she was at Bergen-Belsen, emaciated and shivering.
The diary and the film left me somber and sad. The next day I was reading about the U.S. army liberating the concentration camps in Germany, with descriptions of the number of dead and dying, the piles of bodies. Anne's face came to mind, and the sheer horror was too much to bear.
This is what the book club readers most commented upon. Anne is the face of the tens of thousands who died under the Nazi regime; she humanizes the cold statistics and makes us understand that which we would rather not know.
Anne Frank's diary has been banned, and yet everyone at the table agreed that this is one book that should be universally read.