Oral History

by Lee Smith (1983)

7/10

This one surprised me — based on the little I know of the author I wasn’t expecting anything as bold or compelling. It’s sort of the Appalachian version of 100 Years of Solitude, but without Garcia Marquez’s playful absurdism and instead with an emphasis on grim tragedy.

“Delightful and entertaining” it says on the cover. . . umm, delightful? Not so much methinks. It was pretty damn sad actually, but riveting at the same time and even tormenting. You feel for these characters and this family, and Smith puts you to thinking about progress and tradition, also about the watering down of lineage and the tragedy of ignorance. And it’s all wrapped up in basically a ghost story: a family and its curse. It’s inventive and unexpected and I’d recommend it to just about any adult.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Smith’s attempts at Appalachian vernacular. It read alright I suppose but something about it felt showy and false. I’m coming from Cormac McCarthy though who does this idiomatic dialogue better and more authentically than just about anyone, so perhaps I’m being unfair. Then again Smith doesn’t have every single character (or even any) give philosophical monologues so she beats McCarthy there in terms of realism. I did get over the clanginess after awhile and stopped noticing it as much, but the “moughts” still distracted me some.

My only other gripe is that the scope of the novel necessarily made it difficult to follow all the characters. It was about halfway through that I realized it was more along the lines of 100 Yearsand stopped wanting to cling to every character past their moment in the story. Perhaps not so coincidentally this was also about the time in the book that I stopped caring for the characters.

Unfortunately the most compelling characters for me populated the 1st half of the book — Almarine, Pricey Jane, Dory, Richard Burlage — and everyone after them felt less substantial. It might have to do with the amount of time Smith spent on the later characters as well; she herself didn’t have as much to say about them so it was hard to care as much. It was a pacing problem, and the ending felt like a bit of a cop-out as well.

This all adds up to 3.5 star status but I’m rounding up just because of its surprising originality and entertainment value. As I said I’d recommend it to anyone but especially those looking for interesting female authors and also for anyone interested in Appalachia, which apparently Smith did a lot of research on while writing this.

For more info. . .

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