Thursday, January 8, 2015

I Am a Town: Shari Smith Strikes a Chord

While I spend a lot of time reading literature set in faraway places and long ago times, something feels right when I read a book that takes me to a familiar place. Shari Smith's memoir I Am a Town from River's Edge Media is a collection of stories that intertwine her own life with those of the good people (and even some not-so-good) in Claremont, North Carolina, her adopted hometown for many years.

Since I have lived just a few miles from Claremont--first in Granite Falls and then Hickory--for twenty years now, reading the book felt like memory, even though she's writing about her life and her people, not mine.  I'll admit, sometimes as she names names, they are my people too, especially when she mentions some of the local musicians--Reggie and Ryan Harris, Jaret Carter, Michael Reno Harrell.  The other characters, though, feel like people I know, have known.These are the people you meet in a small town if you take the time to sit down and listen.
Smith has done just that; she's paid attention to everyone from the Police Chief to man at the grill and the one-at-a-time-thank-you town drunk.

When I teach composition and literature, I like to talk about writing style.  Students understand music style and clothing style. They sometimes have a harder time understanding writing style, so I like to highlight certain writers.  Along with the obvious classics, I like to share writing by Tim O'Brien (the writer, not the musician), David Sedaris, and others who have a distinct voice.  Reading Shari Smith's writing feels like listening to her talking. Her diction, her knack for details rings true.

She opens the book by recalling the day fire destroyed the house she loved, turning her focus to all the people of the town who came to help, to comfort.  Chapter by chapter, she brings individuals to life--the boys at the back table at the cafe, the owner, the cook who talks to no one but her, Rev. Col. Russell Boggs of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, who insisted Smith speak at his funeral, read something from To Kill a Mockingbird and be funny.

I Am a Town kept hitting almost all my buttons.  I didn't think anyone else loved Harper Lee's one perfect novel as much as I did; I may have met my match.  Her enthusiasm that brought Rick Bragg to town to help raise money for a library were so familiar too. The clever, sometimes veiled allusions to books and music felt almost like a puzzle.  Not only is the title a song reference, but many of the titles are as well: "Carolina Girl," "Money for Nothin'," "The People You Meet They All Seem to Know You, "The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness."

Smith manages to invite readers into her life, introducing them to her son, her grown daughter and her family, her home and barn, to good dogs, great neighbors.  She made me laugh out loud as she described the two Lutheran Churches on the same street with competing nativity scenes, and then she made me cry when she told about her son Walker and his friends getting up from a televised Tar Heels basketball game, washing the blue paint off their face to say goodbye to a friend who lived years longer than doctors predicted.

Through the book, she makes no bones about her own beliefs and opinions, while treating those who disagree with more than tolerance, with respect and love. I wanted to stop reading, call my dad, and read aloud the chapter about guns.  In fact, I had different chapters earmarked for different friends; I knew plenty of people I am telling, will tell to read this book. Read it right now.