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Oral History

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When Jennifer, a college student, returns to her childhood home of Hoot Owl Holler with a tape recorder, the tales of murder and suicide, incest and blood ties, bring to life a vibrant story of a doomed family that still refuses to give up....

286 pages, Paperback

First published June 15, 1983

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About the author

Lee Smith

46 books831 followers
Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, nine-year-old Lee Smith was already writing--and selling, for a nickel apiece--stories about her neighbors in the coal boomtown of Grundy and the nearby isolated "hollers." Since 1968, she has published eleven novels, as well as three collections of short stories, and has received many writing awards.

The sense of place infusing her novels reveals her insight into and empathy for the people and culture of Appalachia. Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not 10 miles from the Kentucky border. The Smith home sat on Main Street, and the Levisa River ran just behind it. Her mother, Virginia, was a college graduate who had come to Grundy to teach school.

Her father, Ernest, a native of the area, operated a dime store. And it was in that store that Smith's training as a writer began. Through a peephole in the ceiling of the store, Smith would watch and listen to the shoppers, paying close attention to the details of how they talked and dressed and what they said.

"I didn't know any writers," Smith says, "[but] I grew up in the midst of people just talking and talking and talking and telling these stories. My Uncle Vern, who was in the legislature, was a famous storyteller, as were others, including my dad. It was very local. I mean, my mother could make a story out of anything; she'd go to the grocery store and come home with a story."

Smith describes herself as a "deeply weird" child. She was an insatiable reader. When she was 9 or 10, she wrote her first story, about Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell heading out west together to become Mormons--and embodying the very same themes, Smith says, that concern her even today. "You know, religion and flight, staying in one place or not staying, containment or flight--and religion." From Lee Smith's official website.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 236 reviews
Profile Image for Candi.
608 reviews4,590 followers
November 14, 2021
“The heat is lifting some now, so a little wind comes up from the creek and ruffles the hem of Ora Mae’s dress. It ruffles the leaves of the shade trees, sighing, rising stronger now up from the creek and blowing across the yard, it’s sighing up the holler toward Hoot Owl Mountain, moaning around the house. It has voices in it, and thunder coming…”

I finished this book a week ago, yet I feel as if I’m still plunked firmly in the Appalachian hill country of Virginia. Lee Smith is no stranger to those parts, and her remarkable skill at bringing the reader right into her settings is incomparable. These are her people, her family and friends, her ancestors. This may be a fictional story, but no doubt her characters are much like folks she’s known firsthand or those she’s heard about through the oral histories she’s been privy to as a daughter of a local store owner. For a short time, they became my people, too. I empathized with their yearnings, suffered their losses, and felt hopeful in their brief moments of happiness. This way of life has changed drastically with the introduction of roads and modern technology, but no doubt there still exist people that endure a large portion of hardship in this corner of the world.

“They is something about Hoot Owl Mountain makes a body lose heart. If you laid down to sleep on that pretty moss, you mought never wake up again in this world. It’s no telling where you’d wake up.”

The novel begins with a young woman named Jennifer who has taken on the task of researching her family history for a college project. The voices of various ancestors come to life one after another in their telling of a past steeped with heartache, longing, intrigue, and superstition. After a while I forgot this was Jennifer’s pursuit. Lee Smith makes the reader believe the stories are being told directly to him or her. I’ve never lived in the south, but I’ve read a decent share of Appalachian literature by now to be able to say that the dialect is authentic. Naturally, the author knows how these people converse with one another, how they pass down their stories. Even Granny Younger, whose voice might be more difficult for a “foreigner” (as the locals label anyone not born in this area) to understand, was a pleasure to read and helped set the tone of these tales. Rumors of witchery are woven throughout, affecting the behavior of the residents and even the outsiders to this place. There is one section told from the point of view of a city man sent there to teach the children. Richard’s story was enlightening, as we see the mountains and its people from his eyes, much like the reader might do if one happened to stumble into these parts unawares. He too comes under the spell of the place as he falls in love with a local beauty.

“I went always, in those days, in a state of grace, or dread perhaps, a state at any rate of a kind of emotional pointillism, with each nerve quite on edge. I felt fragile, I felt razor-thin, as if to be toppled by any breeze…”

Despite the multiple points of view, as both minor and major characters chime in, the entire piece felt like a musical composition held together by the fabric of family, local history, and a whisper of the supernatural. A pair of gold hoop earrings brought together the various voices into a melodic piece that culminates in an outro that was hugely satisfying. I was as bewitched as the Cantrells. This is not my first time reading this author, nor will it be the last. This was an excellent piece, well worth the five stars. But if you want to discover just why I fell head over heels with the artistry of Lee Smith’s prose as well as which literary character I revere over nearly any other, then I beg you to hunt down a copy of Fair and Tender Ladies. You won’t be sorry!

“… we human beings are all like planets which revolve throughout the great darkness of the universe. Sometimes our orbits bring us perilously close to one another; other times, we collide with a great explosion of sparks; but more often than that, we simply spin on in ignorance, through the vast globy blackness of space.”
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book462 followers
November 11, 2021
When I was growing up, all family history was oral. My Daddy would tell tales of his Uncle Bunny, a man who had been dead twenty years before I was born, and bring him to life, so that he felt like a presence still there. This is what Lee Smith does so perfectly in her novels--she reaches into the past, plucks out fascinating characters, and brings them completely to life.

In Oral History, a young college student goes to the mountains of Virginia to research her family ancestry, and we are treated to their real stories, seen through the eyes of others who witnessed their lives unfold. The mountain setting of Hoot Owl Holler is as much a character as the people. It is nestled between three mountains, and it influences events by walling people in or setting them free. The very handsome Almarine Cantrell begins this story and three generations of Cantrells then weave a tale of fate and adversity that makes the legend of a curse seem more possible than not.

Smith has a rare command of the language of the mountains, and she presents her characters without condescending to them, another rarity. She knows the music and the old-time remedies, and she uses the expressions that peppered a Southern childhood and have now almost passed out of existence. Who doesn’t like a little mystery and some backwoods superstitions? She speaks of people who believe in witches and curses and makes you wonder if they are crazy or just more sensitive to another dimension than we are.

Three years of summers coming and going, and snow on the ground in the cold, and I’m still traveling my mountains but I know it in my heart I’m slowing down. I can tell how I’m getting old. Some days I’ll set by my fire all day, and think back on things that was, and them things is ever as clear to me as the here and now. Some days I swear I can’t tell no difference between them, and I tell you, I don’t give a damn.

I love Lee Smith. She is the genuine article. This book does not rival Fair and Tender Ladies, but it comes close. I will continue to read her until I have exhausted her work and then, if I am granted a long enough life, I will start over again.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,230 reviews451 followers
November 13, 2021
Oral history has two meanings here. On one hand, it refers to outsiders, or foreigners, as they were known in the hill country, who came in to listen to stories and songs from the old-timers to give them a sense of how it used to be. It was also the only way those old-timers had to convey family history and community lore in the mountains before modern roads and communications brought the rest of the world crashing in, for better or worse. Lee Smith has given us a novel that puts us squarely in the world of the Cantrells of Hoot Owl Holler, starting with the old ways and superstitions of the past, and wrapping it up in the modern era, leaving us to wonder which is better after all.

At my age, I have a foot in both camps, as does Lee Smith, and she loves and knows her characters in addition to telling a riveting story that was hard for me to put down. I reveled in the language and the words that I can remember hearing in my childhood, along with the superstitions and old wives tales that I heard and still halfway believe to this day. Feuds and violence and retribution went hand in hand with an entire community gathering to help whenever and wherever it was needed. I've never actually witnessed a hog butchering, but I bet Lee Smith has. I actually have been to pentecostal meetings with my grandmother, so I know the snakes and talking in tongues she describes is real. Every word rang true in this novel as I was swept into a world of the past that I was sorry to leave.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,694 reviews1,478 followers
April 19, 2018
This is a story about five generations of the Cantrell family. They live in Hoot Owl Holler in West Virginia. Southern life in the mountains of Appalachia is the book's story. The first Cantrell came from Ireland. The patriarch fought in the Civil War for the Union, lost a leg and when the remaining stump putrefied he died, leaving to his wife and three sons lots of land in the holler and up the sides of the three surrounding mountains. We follow these sons, their wives and offspring through the 20th century.

The author knows Southern life intimately. Her writing captures well the dialect, the songs that are sung, the landscape with its mists, sparkling creeks birds and flora, the farming, the logging and the mining of coal. The traditions and beliefs of the inhabitants -- mystical, supernatural and religious. How babies are ‘caught’ by midwives, which herbs heal and those which poison. Corn can be sold in the market, but distilling it into liquor is more profitable. With so many hungry children to feed, that distilling is chosen is self-evident. All of the above is drawn in this story. We see the Prohibition, the Depression and the coming of roads, electricity and mining. More importantly we see the effects on the region’s people. This is the backdrop for the family drama of witches and hauntings, birth and death, feuds, passion and love affairs.

What is drawn is based on knowledge of these people’s traditions and beliefs. The telling is drawn with taste. The sex is sensuous, not vulgar. I am not religious and I am skeptical of the supernatural, but this book shows why these people are religious and do believe in the supernatural. You see their world through their eyes. Only in this way can one properly learn about others’ lifestyles.

Many small details fill this story, such as a particular pair of earrings, an apron or a chair. You see them once and then twenty-five years later. They pass down from one generation to another; they are no longer just any old thing. The objects take on meaning; each bears a particular significance. These details weave a story of lives over time. I was terribly impressed by the author’s ability to so cleverly intertwine the personal stories of five generations of a family. Without a hitch, all the details fit.

The story progresses from one narrator to another as the years pass. This feels very natural as the focus shifts from one generation to the next. The book starts with Jennifer, a college student of our times who has taken a tape recorder home to talk to her relatives and catch the spirits of a haunted house for a school project. Then the story flips back in time and continues up to the present, where we first began.

I was on the verge of giving the book five stars, but the end goes on too long. It loses its impact. I wish it had been shortened or tied up in another way. Jennifer and her mother’s life story are told too quickly, by a family member who does not really seem to care. How the concluding part of the story is told does fit she who is telling the story at this point and it does have amusing parts, but it still lost my interest. This is why I have given the book four rather than five stars.

The audiobook has a full cast narration. The narrators are Christine McMurdo-Wallis, Sally Darling, Ruth Ann Phinister, Jeff Woodman, Tom Stechschulte and C. J. Critt. The persons telling the different portions of the story are well matched to the six narrators of the audiobook. The production of the audiobook is done with a flair—songs are sung, the narrators change not according to chapter divisions, but instead when most appropriate, usually when the person speaking changes. I have given the narration four stars. While I did prefer some of the narrators more than others, they all fit their respective character roles well. It was an advantage that a full cast performance was used.

Do I recommend the book? Definitely. I also recommend listening to it with the full cast narration.


Oral History 4 stars
Fair and Tender Ladies 4 stars
Dimestore: A Writer's Life 2 stars
Profile Image for Lori  Keeton.
455 reviews93 followers
November 12, 2021

Lee Smith’s Oral History has left me somewhat mesmerized. Smith’s ability to conjure the people and the place she is writing about is hypnotizing. She draws you into the story from her first sentence and lets you know that you are in for a real treat. In this story, Lee Smith has created a framework for the Cantrell family’s saga in which the history of the past is learned through the voice of 13 different people. Based on the premise of a long-lost relative returning to collect the family history for a college class, Smith allows each of the different voices to tell their tales. As each voice is heard, the Cantrell family tree is outlined and grows with some amazing and surprising connections.

At the heart of this story is the Appalachian setting huddled among the mountains of Virginia in Hoot Owl Holler where the Cantrell family has made their home for generations. Smith is so adept at the voice of the people in this area and she begins with Granny Younger telling of the superstitions, legends and bewitching behaviors. She begins with Alarmine Cantrell’s story and scatters it with rituals and remedies common here.

I said I know moren you know and mought be I’ll tell you moren you want to hear. I’ll tell you a story that’s truer than true, and nothing so true is so pretty. It’s blood on the moon, as I said. The way I tell a story is the way I want to, and iffen you mislike it, you don’t have to hear.

We are also treated to some very interesting folklore of the region and of some of the traditions that make Appalachia unique. For instance, the Cantrell curse that affects some of its female members imparts a mystical element to the family’s history. In Hoot Owl Holler, the women are very sensual and Smith doesn’t downplay their sexuality. There are a few moments of passion for those who need to be warned. The story focuses on Dory, the only daughter of Alarmine Cantrell who falls for an outsider, a man who comes to teach school on the premise that he will make a difference and try to modernize these folks. His idealized beliefs he brought with him are questioned as he falls hard for a girl who only knows life in the holler and nothing beyond.

Lee Smith is such a masterful voice and storyteller for the people and places of Appalachia. She knows firsthand what authentic life is like and how it is lived. I’ve now read two of her novels, Fair and Tender Ladies is phenomenal and very different but equally as wonderful. I will seek out more of her works and happily add them to my shelves!
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,666 reviews440 followers
November 9, 2021
Jennifer, a college student, visits her deceased mother's family to record the folklore and haunting of the people of Hoot Owl Holler. "Oral History" is a fascinating tale of a family that may have been struck with the Cantrell curse which led to tragic love affairs and unexpected deaths. Lee Smith has infused her story with folk expressions, traditions, food, music, and superstitions to bring the reader into the hill country of Virginia. This is a multigenerational story full of family secrets that are revealed layer by layer.
Profile Image for Carmel Hanes.
Author 1 book127 followers
May 27, 2022
"Almarine didn't need nobody, is what it was, and there's folks won't take to a child like that."

Almarine, the man who started this multi-generational saga of folks in Hoot Owl Holler; described as a child who was sensitive and kind. And then, later, after life had its way with him:

"Almarine Cantrell is a man who would just as soon kill you as look at you"....."But when a man who has been a good man becomes embittered by fate and turns to evil, that good man, I tell you, is worse, is more dangerous to society , than the man who has been committed to ill and followed that path without deviation all along. This convert though: he will turn guilt to cruelty and act with no compunction, I tell you."

Oral History follows a dozen-ish narrators through multiple generations of offspring as they experience births, deaths, conflicts, love (requited or not), and the evolution of a culture within the superstitions, traditions, and unproven but accepted tales that make up this fascinating Appalachian holler. A story rich with unique characters, described in language that brings this culture vividly to life in your mind and mind's "ear". I've not been to the mountains of Appalachia, but I feel like I now know exactly what it was/is like, and what it sounds like.

Shifting narrators and timelines can sometimes cause confusion, but not so in this master's hands. Questions that seemed to be left hanging as we shifted generations or speakers were later answered in a seamless way, bringing the full picture together when you least expected it. Those little "aha" moments were gifts when they occurred.

Embedded within the day to day family sagas were larger philosophical tensions:

"I had before me an object lesson, I thought: two ways to face the world. One way as embodied by this old woman--simple, unassuming, a kind of peasant dignity, a naturalness inherent in her every move. The other, exemplified by the girl--smartness, sophistication, veneer without substance."

How do these two worlds exist in the same place, and what happens when they can't?

"The Rev Aldous Rife smiled at my assertions that I have come here to make some contribution, however slight, to the cause of civilization, that I wish to find in Nature the source of that religious impulse which has been stifled rather than nurtured by the rigid disciplines of the Episcopal Church, the church of my youth."

We meet a preacher who doesn't believe in God and the woman he sleeps with who does, providing an interesting contrast and discussion regarding behavior versus belief, works and lifestyle versus confession and grace, and the wasteland of doubt in between.

Fascinating characters, fun dialect, interesting philosophical undertones, and a tension that feels like a mystery as you go through the chapters. I enjoyed the tone of this story, which felt like sitting around a campfire, hearing multiple people giving family history I was unaware of.

I read it, but wished I'd had it on audio. I've heard it's narrated by multiple people so one never gets confused...and I fell in love with "Granny" and wanted to hear her speak! Terrific story and an unreserved 5 from me.

Profile Image for JG (Introverted Reader).
1,112 reviews484 followers
April 4, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
874 reviews
May 27, 2022
ORAL HISTORY by Lee Smith was our May buddy read and my introduction to this author and her writing.
I was quickly drawn into this well-written three-generational story of the Cantrell family set in the Appalachian Mountains. The characterization, detailed descriptions, folklore and multiple points of view kept me turning the pages.
The map inside the book covers and the family trees at the beginning of each section were helpful.
⚠️ Trigger Warning: There are some politically incorrect words and ethnic and racial slurs.
If you are looking for tales of life in rural Appalachian mountains starting in the late 1800's to late 1900's, witchcraft, murder, superstitions, folklore and more, then this is the book for you.
Here are some quotes that I want to share.
"I had before me an object lesson, I thought: two ways to face the world. One way as embodied by this old woman - simple, unassuming, a kind of peasant dignity, a naturalness inherent in her every move. The other, exemplified by the girl - smartness, sophistication, veneer without substance. I was conscious that I have now opted for the old woman's way, have thrown in my lot with a creature I would have jeered at a year ago. My present trip to the mountains is indeed a trip to that wellspring of naturalness she symbolized. And I admired my choice, the only choice for a sensitive and moral man in my dilemma."

" I have been thinking today how images of light have for so long been associated with learning, with religion, and with love...."

"Yet we human beings are all, I reflect, like planets which revolve throughout the great darkness of the universe. Sometimes our orbits bring us perilously close to one another; other times, we collide with a great explosion of sparks; but more often than that, we simply spin on in ignorance, through the vast globy blackness of space."

4 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Profile Image for Kathy.
681 reviews
January 10, 2013
I wanted so much to love this book since it was a recommendation from a friend whose literary taste seems to be in synch with mine. I like the beginning stories. I liked Almarine and Pricey Jane. The book did feel like an oral history. But along the way I lost the need to finish. When that happens, I know the rest will be difficult to stay with, and it was.
Profile Image for Crystal.
Author 1 book25 followers
April 6, 2014
So this book was somewhere between four and five stars for me - closer to five because it kept me very interested and I finished it within a week. I'm slower to the game than many of my colleagues and friends because this is the first Lee Smith book I've read and if you are literate and live in Southwest Virginia, you had better have read Lee Smith.

While I grew up in Appalachia, I don't know that I ever really identified myself as such. I grew up in the hills about a mile away from the nearest "hard top" road but I was educated and I didn't have a dialect like that which was depicted in this book. However, this story/the stories of these people are like everyone around me who grew up here. We've all got them(these crazy stories about relatives and friends) and if we don't think we do, then likely it's just that they've never been told to us. So Smith hits it heads on. She has to since she is from Grundy - "right smack dab" in the middle of the setting in this book.

She is masterful in her prose and she sets the scenery just as it truthfully is and her writing makes you experience what her characters do. I highly recommend this book to anyone, not just those who "understand" the Appalachian mindset.
Profile Image for Rita.
1,431 reviews
April 14, 2009
This 1983 meandering series of stories about 4 generations or so of an Appalachian family certainly reads easily. Perhaps I have read too many Lee Smiths in too short a time -- I am getting a little weary of the endless shifting to a different character.
OK, in real life we never know any person really very well, we only see one side of them, but somehow in fiction I yearn for a deeper look at just a few characters.
I'm not sure what I will retain, if anything, of these stories.
Smith does have ways to make scenes and people come alive - you feel the cold wind, hear the thunder, sense the fear...
An undercurrent in this book is how mistaken others are about what a person [or family:] is really like. Time and again we have a character misjudged by those around him/her. And Smith sometimes shows us how a rumor can start, and then spread and spread until it becomes accepted as Truth.
Profile Image for Steve Lindahl.
Author 9 books32 followers
May 10, 2010
Oral History takes place in western Virginia and spans nearly one hundred years. It follows the Cantrell family and covers among others: a man returning from the Civil War without a leg, a witch, a bootlegger, a coal miner, and an Amway distributor.

I thought there were some aspects to the book that I wished Smith had done differently. The tale of the family is bracketed by a story of Jennifer, a young woman who is looking into the history of her own family for a college project. That story was originally a short story and Smith did not do a good job with the transition into and out of that work. There are some coincidences in the book that bothered me. One that was particularly annoying was the timing of Ora Mae catching Richard in bed with Justine Poole. I was also bothered by Smith's tendency to step away from some of the most critical parts of the book. For example, the readers don't get to see the murder of Almarine Cantrell. They just get to hear about it from another character.

However, what was wonderful about this novel greatly outweighs the few complaints I had. The world of these mountain people was magnificently rendered. I understood and accepted their belief in witches. I laughed but acknowledged the way their humor was always about sex or excrement. I marveled in the primitive methods of healing they used with apparent success.

One of Lee Smith's goals was to capture the lives of a culture that is disappearing. I believe she accomplished that goal. (Steve Lindahl - author of Motherless Soul)

Profile Image for James Klagge.
Author 14 books80 followers
July 5, 2017
Enjoyable to read, but an unsatisfying conclusion. The structure of the novel was good, with an opening and closing chapter set in the present, and the intervening chapters telling the story. But the author seemed not to know what to do in the last chapter.
The story is basically a classical tragedy, with choices made early on reverberating through the decades with bad consequences over and over. I enjoyed the settings of rural Appalachia through the decades of the 20th century. And the story line of Richard Burlage somewhat reflected, in a much magnified way, some of my own experiences--an outsider being enamored of that culture and of a girl there, and the ongoing meaning of that in my life, and of how reality diverges from fantasy.
Profile Image for Aubrey Kramer.
19 reviews
October 25, 2008
I got the sense that I was watching a television series, only every time Lee switches characters, it's like missing a few episodes. You still know what is going on, but it's like you missed something. It was very easy to "get into" this book, I read it in two days, but it was still not one of my favorites. There are a lot of explicit sexual encounters that for me, drew away from, rather than supported the believability of the novel. Jennifer is a high school student who is gathering the oral histories of her family tree. My own family is not conservative, but I know nothing about my mother's sex life, not to mention my grandmother's or great-grandmother's.
Profile Image for Susan.
28 reviews
January 9, 2013
Lovely book. Think Smith's "Fair and Tender Ladies," mixed with Catherine Marshall's "Christie." The changing voices were jarring at first, but I have to admire her ability to actually speak in different characters' voices. I could really believe all these characters were telling their own stories. (She does the same thing so well in "The Christmas Letters.") It is a sad story, but beautifully told--full of "if onlies--!". (So much in "Histories" is reminiscent of my early days (1970s) in the north Georgia mountains--language, stories, cadence, customs. Things had not changed much in the intervening years!!)
Profile Image for Kristine W.
38 reviews1 follower
September 29, 2008
Originally read more than 20 years ago as a BYU student and I can tell its staying power because it's one of the rare, rare, rare books I've actually held on to (ask my book club friends: I'm so cheap, I NEVER buy the book of the month). I stumbled on it in my basement last week, plopped right down and read it start to finish. Wacky, upsetting, and a totally different America than one I could ever imagine, something in this book woke up the latent family historian in me. Don't worry, I'm sure it'll go back to sleep again soon.
Profile Image for Michaela.
79 reviews4 followers
September 19, 2007
Once again: I love characterization. Lee Smith tells the story of generations of an Appalachian Mountain family in first person, but as many people. You have the old Granny at first with her traditional way of speaking, a young school teacher from Richmond with his pretentious language, all the way up to a modern-day hill-billy country diction. It's incredible how the author changed her voice throughout the novel to match her characters. I loved the book!
Profile Image for Cathy.
81 reviews8 followers
December 3, 2007
This story takes place in the mountains of Virginia, where my life story bones lie. It was close to my heart to read. Lee Smith is a wonderful writer! But I love this book because of the familiarity of it -- it was like reading my journal or my grandmother's journal. Sigh . . .
444 reviews113 followers
November 15, 2021
I remember reading this when it first came out. It was the first of many books by Lee Smith I read. I don't recall it very well --not well enough it assign it a value -- but I do remember liking it a lot.
Profile Image for Pungent Sound.
44 reviews1 follower
January 22, 2023
Lee Smith drops an astute warning at the start of her enthralling Oral History. And though its directed at the ladies, anyone aiming to “court” young men should listen up.

Come all you fair and tender ladies
Be careful how you court young men.
They're like a star in a summer's morning,
First appear and they're gone.

That sets the tone for a story “that’s truer than true, and nothing so true is so pretty. It’s blood on the moon.” Yikes! I’m not sure fair and tender ladies and gentlemen are ready for this.

Jennifer is a college student who was raised by her father. She hardly remembers her mother. She’s working on a project for her Oral History class, and her professor (who clearly has taken some non-academic interest in her) has encouraged her to interview her mother’s family. She may learn something about herself in the process. Cool.

But is it? Jennifer’s mother was a Cantrell, and she grew up in Appalachia. Geez, Gladiola, that’s a huge territory in the eastern United States. Could you be more specific? OK, fine. The Cantrells have lived for generations in the most remote part of southwestern Virginia – the pointy nose part that sticks into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Not everyone is glad Jennifer has shown up. Her grandmother in particular is frosty. Wow. Grandma doesn’t sound like a fair and tender lady. She’s not. Perhaps it’s because she has spent most of her life in the shadows of Hoot Owl Mountain. It might be the “prettiest holler on God’s green earth” but there’s something about it that makes a “body lose heart.” Maybe it’s because that witch cursed it.

And let’s not forget. Jennifer may be family, but she’s also a “foreigner” – a term that “does not necessarily refer to someone from another country or even from another state, but simply to anybody who was not born” in that area of the county.

In Oral History Lee Smith tells a rollicking tale of four generations of Cantrells. It’s full of music, moonshine, laughter, tragedy, desperation, ghosts, and violence. There is poverty, hard times, and true grit. It’s also honest and loving. Appalachia has been stereotyped and ridiculed ever since foreigners have been telling its stories. Smith doesn’t do that. She knows the region well and has affection for it, but she does not gloss over its tortured history. Her characters are flawed and sometimes wicked, but they’re human.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor - Pungent Sound Journal of Pulp Poetry (PungentSound.com)
Profile Image for Pat.
1,251 reviews16 followers
June 9, 2022
Thank you. Carmel, for recommending this delightful book and new author! Living on the Ohio across from WV, this rang totally true! I was happy to have found the audio version on Hoopla with different narrators and the songs of the area so applicable to individual tales. And so happy to have a new author,Lee Smith! I am listening to her Dimestore and enjoying it, too!
Profile Image for Jane Elzey.
Author 3 books180 followers
May 25, 2021
If you want to delve into the hillbilly lifestyle with all of its beauty and imperfections, Smith is your best read. Eloquent, authentic, moving, even delicate at times. Great storytelling. Look forward to reading more southern lit by Smith.
Profile Image for Annette.
665 reviews7 followers
February 12, 2022
I throughly enjoyed the audio version of this book read by different characters authentic accents that made this book even more enjoyable. Oral History reminded me of my own family folklore and stories about different generations who lived in the country and had their own ways. Highly recommended
Profile Image for Emily Conn .
19 reviews1 follower
February 22, 2023
I read this book for my Appalachian literature class and loved it. I really like the writing style, characters-espically Ora Mae, and the culture dynamics and quotes on love and growth.
I highlighted a lot of good quotes that really stuck out to me, and had me pleasantly surprised.
I do wish some aspects of the story were fleshed out more, espically with Richard, Dory, Luther, Ora Mae, and espically Jinx and Mary. I also found the ending and switch to Sally’s perspective to be quite abrupt.
Profile Image for Andrew.
572 reviews120 followers
December 23, 2020
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. There's definitely some Faulkner going on as well what with the sudden, dramatic changes in perspective.

"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 Years and 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.

Not Bad Reviews

Profile Image for Rebecca Brothers.
134 reviews17 followers
December 9, 2010
First, let me start off by saying, I LOVE LEE SMITH. I think she’s an incredible writer, and I’m certainly not alone in this. The New York Times Book Review said of Lee (in a blurb on the cover of Oral History): “She is nothing less than masterly.” The NYTBR people not only didn’t HAVE to say that, they got paid for their honesty. So, she’s great. End of that debate.

I’ve read a few of her books now, including Fair And Tender Ladies (still my fav) and Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger (which is NOT, thank God, another Jane Austen knock-off book, which I feared it might be, given the title and recent fiction’s penchant for such). Smith has a keen ear for details of language, both in her narratives and her dialog. She is unique in her accurate (sometimes painfully so) portrayal of mountain life, people, and their speech. I love that Smith can really give us the dirt on these communities, real dirt, not just the topsoil you get in a lot of regional books. Many “Southern” books sound as if they are written by someone who has spent very little time in their locale, someone who just toured through town on a Saturday, ate at a cute little diner, and then picked up a brochure at the Chamber of Commerce before heading out of town to go write about it all. Smith’s love, respect, criticisms, and fears for and about the mountains where she places her stories are all apparent in each and every line.

So this most recent book, Oral History, falls right in line with the kind of depth and authenticity I’ve come to expect from Smith. She follows one twisted family tree (one that crosses its own branches a couple of times, if you get my drift) through hard times, farming, coal mining, disaster, and city-slicker school teachers (a disaster in their own right). The whole book has the delicious thread of a ghost story, and it was a page turner, the kind that interrupts your life, making you neglect hearth and home to finish it. She creates characters stunted by the stingy light allowed them in the shadows of their mountain homes, people who are just beginning to suspect life might have more to offer, more than they might really want, away from their dear hollows.

My only qualm: Oh my God, it’s a dirty book. Now, I have NOTHING against a dirty book. I’m just absolutely red-faced that I gave this to my mother and had her read it and now that I’ve gotten to it, I don’t know if she and I can talk about this one face to face. It’s a FANTASTIC BOOK. But it IS dirty. LEE! Goodness!
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