Black Mountain Breakdown by Lee Smith: Book Review

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Cover of Black Mountain Breakdown

3 Stars

We first meet Crystal Spangler when she’s a dreamy twelve-year-old Virginia mountain girl, in the summer before she begins high school. We follow her as her dreaminess leads her to look for meaning, or for herself, in all the wrong places.

I adore Lee Smith’s work. She writes about the mountains of Virginia. I’m in North Carolina, but reading a book by Lee Smith feels like coming home. She captures the spirit of these mountains and these people perfectly. Just read this opening paragraph:

”Now the lightning bugs come up from the mossy ground along the river bank, first one, then two together, more, hesitant at first, from the darkness gathered there already in the brush beneath the trees. Crystal sits and watches, holds her breath, the Mason jar beside her knee; if she looks down, she can’t even see it now. She touches it with her finger and feels the glass with the letters raised and indecipherable in the dimness so that they could be anything, any words at all. They could be French. Suddenly out of the scrub grass at her knees comes rising a small pale flickering light, sickly unearthly yellowish green, fairy light. It is so close she can breathe on it and see the whirring, tiny wings. Crystal doesn’t move. She could catch it, but she doesn’t. Only her eyes move to follow the flight, erratic at first as if blown by wind although there is no wind in the hot still damp of early June on the river bank, then into the dark branches, away and gone. Crystal can barely see the river on down the bank, barely hear it. She looks across the river bed now to the railroad track cut into the mountain which goes straight up on the other side, almost perpendicular, impenetrable, too steep for houses or even trails: Black Mountain. Its rocky top makes a jagged black hump across the sky and it is surprisingly light that far up in the sky, but the river bottom lies deep in the mountain’s shadow and even in Crystal’s yard now and in Agnes’s yard next door and on Highway 460 in front of the house it is dark. Cars have got their lights on.”

I read that and I drifted back to endless summer nights growing up, either catching lightning bugs or sitting on the porch watching them rise from the hayfield and the trees. I can remember the sound of the creek from my parents’ house, or I can remember being at my grandparents’ house and watching the light fade behind the mountain we called Stoney Fork as full dark settled in across the hills. It might be December, but that passage transports me right into July. And I am amazed at Lee Smith’s talent.


Black Mountain Breakdown is more of a character study than a regional study and I couldn’t bring myself to like Crystal. I can’t bring myself to love a book if I don’t like the characters, so I had a problem. I can’t fault Smith on her depiction of Crystal: she perfectly described the woman who just can’t be herself without tying herself up in some other identity. She’s either Crystal the cheerleader, Crystal the beauty queen, Crystal the Christian, or Crystal the football player’s girlfriend. She’s never just Crystal. And that drives me crazy. She caught my interest at one point and I got excited that this might turn into a five star book for me, but that went away, and I’m left a little dissatisfied. There’s room to think that the book ends any way that you want it to, but I can’t really bring myself to believe that my ending is ever going to happen for Crystal.

For the right reader, I know this would be a fantastic book. It just wasn’t quite there for me.

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