Oral History by Lee Smith: Book Review

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Cover of Oral History by Lee Smith4 Stars

The Cantrell family has lived in Hoot Owl Holler in the mountains of Virginia for as long as anyone can remember. They love hard, play hard, and suffer deeply. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between for them. Oral History follows…let’s call it three…generations of Cantrells, starting with handsome Almarine and his run-in with a witch and going on down to his grandchildren.

I loved this. I was thinking that it was my second-favorite book by Lee Smith (Fair and Tender Ladies is far and away my very favorite), but then I remembered On Agate Hill. We’ll call it a tie.

I say this every time, but I love the rhythm of Smith’s writing. She writes in a way that is as familiar to me as an old worn quilt. The words, the syntax, the pronunciation, I just hear every word as if a family member were telling me a story.

I loved the way the family events passed into legends in the hollers where they lived. From Almarine and his witch (was she really?) to a family curse to mysterious deaths. Smith never tells more than she should and leaves it up to the reader to decide what is “fact” and what is myth in this fictional family.

The story passes from person to person as the years roll by, but the events are never told by those living them. That helps to keep the “reality or legend?” question going. The narrators aren’t always sure themselves. I followed along with it just fine but readers who dislike multiple points of view might want to steer clear.

There is a streak of something dark in some families in these mountains and I think Smith caught that feeling perfectly. I can’t explain it any better that. Maybe it’s just that we’ve all lived here so long, we expect to see family traits and find what we’re looking for. But I can tell you exactly which road the Cantrells would have lived on in my little community–where that dark streak is found.

I liked seeing how the mountain people change as the years go by. They go from almost complete isolation to watching tv and selling Amway. I can’t find it now, but one character comments on how the younger generations will eventually sound more like Dan Rather than their own people. It’s true. The book feels a bit like a love offering to a changing way of life.

The framework of the novel is built around a great-granddaughter who grew up in “town” coming back in search of her mother’s family’s oral history. I didn’t like it and, after reading an interview with the author at the end, I don’t think it worked exactly the way she intended it to. I think it was supposed to give an outsider’s look at the “quaint mountaineers” and show how the Appalachian culture is slowly dying out as young people move away. It just irritated me. There were other sections where Smith showed the same thing much better. Jennifer, the estranged great-granddaughter, just comes across as vapid after the richness of the other characters.

Those few pages aside, I loved this book. I highly recommend it.

Find author Lee Smith on her website.

Buy Oral History at

Southern Literature Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader

I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site.

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