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Oral History

4.06 of 5 stars 4.06  ·  rating details  ·  2,465 ratings  ·  121 reviews
"Delightful and entertaining."


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....

"Deft and assured....[Lee Smith] is nothing less than masterly."


Paperback, 286 pages
Published August 27th 1996 by Ballantine Books (first published June 15th 1983)
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Community Reviews

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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 way
JG (The Introverted Reader)
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 m
Aubrey Kramer
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 his ...more
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
Steve Lindahl
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 o
Rebecca Brothers
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
Jul 13, 2007 Elizabeth rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those who like the to follow the story of an entire family tree over many generations
This book follows a family in a remote corner of Appalachia over the course of four generations. The stories of the first two generations are excellent - life in Appalachia in the late-1800s is well captured, especially the folklore and superstition that existed and how it operated as an element in daily life. The characters are also very well developed, since you follow their entire life stories. The second half of the book is not as captivating. Appalachia succumbs to some trappings of moderni ...more
While Lee Smith has become a favorite writer, I have to say this book was not. Told in various voices over a hundred or so year span of life in Western Virginia, each time the narrator changed it felt like a disruption...a jarring of the story that took a momentary readjustment on my part which was quite off-putting.

Too, the beginning and ending of the novel seemed fragmentary...pieces and bits tacked on to introduce Jennifer yet never quite managing to leave the reader with an understanding of
This was my first Lee Smith novel, and I will definitely be reading more. She apparently writes mostly regional fiction about the Appalachians in general and far western Virginia in particular. In this novel, several generations of the Cantrell family take turns narrating their family history while living it. The physical aspects of life in the mountains changes as the times move forward from roughly 1870 to the mid 20th century, but the values and traits that give shape and character to familie ...more
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 no ...more
Kristine W
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 ...more
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!
This book was unexpected, but sooo enjoyable. The novel is written in the style of an oral history, and it reminded me so much of listening to my grandparents tell stories about family/friends. I was so enraptured by the style that I completely fell into the magic of the family curse. Very enjoyable! (Be advised, though, there are a couple of scandalous scenes)
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.
This is my favorite book, bar none. I wish I could say I found it on my own while browsing through a dusty bookstore. Instead it was assigned. But that's ok, I am just happy to have found it at all. Hypnotic. Chilling. Scenic. Sad. Scary. Real and Imaginary. You will love it or I will ... disown you.
Jun 11, 2008 Lois added it
I can't say enough good things about Lee Smith, but since she is so very local to Virginia and North Carolina it's hard to find her outside of the area. Writing in the redneck dialect is dicey, something that could go incredibly badly, and she pulls it off oh so very well.
Dec 03, 2007 Cathy rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: southerners
Shelves: most-loved-by-me
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 . . .
I didn't like this book nearly as much as Fair and Tender Ladies. I was a little disappointed that Lee Smith felt the need to tie everything up so neatly at the end. I think she could have done without the last chapter completely. Other than that, I did enjoy this book.
Oral History. It is what it says. Members of a family telling their stories. Delightfully told. Perfectly pitched. Not sure if there's a GR book group that focuses on reading various American regions. If so this would be an excellent pick for the Appalachian holler.
I loved this book. I must say that there is a problem with the framing of this book. Smith had to explain herself in the back of the book...The story (other than the framing) was great. I got into it. I love the mythological aspects of it as well.
Ginny Adams
Read carefully, or you will miss the point.

This Smith classic is one of the most beautiful and stark examples of Appalachian stereotyping put to the test. Every character counts in this story. So pay attention...
this book is so beautifully written, it's like a movie where the cinematography is so gorgeous you want to rewind and watch certain parts again - i kept re-reading certain sentences. one of my all time favorite books.
Brilliantly done story that follows the genealogy of one Appalachian family so evocatively, using different voices and narrators from each period of time, taking the child of one story into the adult of the next.
The whole thing had a sort of, well, icky feeling to it. For the first chapter or two I was really excited to read this for Uni. After that, though, it just went down hill. I found the characters a bit exaggerated, and I ended up liking very few. I realize that it isn't about liking characters, but I really didn't relate. The topics were so all over the place. The sex-scenes felt gratuitous and took away from the plot for me. Also, the serious creep factor of this being Jennifer's ancestors - ho ...more
Jan 31, 2012 Alicia rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Alicia by: My sister Patti.
I only recently discovered Lee Smith, although this novel was first published in the 1980s. I've got a lot of catching up to do. Smith is a born storyteller and knows the Appalachian region first hand, having grown up in southwestern Virginia and then spending her adult years in North Carolina. She also draws from extensive research on the area's history, folklore and folkways. The narrative line spans the early 1900s up to the present (1980s), and the tales are told by different narrators. A si ...more
Lee Smith weaves this story together with first person accounts from various people close to the Cantrell family throughout the course of four generations. The reader experiences the characters all the way from their youth to old age, and eventually the lives of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren too. I loved watching how each person changed as they grew older, and how Lee Smith made all the life experiences the characters endured seem so authentic. Because the story is writt ...more
This was not an enjoyable read for me. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, and this made it impossible for me to get to know any one of them enough to really care. I also found the ending (literally, the last page) to be really disappointing. The author goes through a laundry list of many of the characters, devoting about a sentence to each one of them and how their lives ended up. It was, in my opinion, rather trite and unnecessary. I would have preferred things to be more open-e ...more
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This is the only Lee Smith book I've read, so comparisons with other Smith books are impossible.
The story traces the history of an Appalachian family from the late 19th century to the late-mid 20th century. It is told from various points of view, by various characters, at various times, resulting in a book which on the surface might seem "downright Faulknerian." However, Smith's main concern is the story and not the experience of reading it (which could, on some level, be said of Faulkner's lite
I have mixed feelings about this book.

It was well written enough. The descriptions were at times luscious and the dialog all felt genuine. But it was also a little hard to follow in places. It's the history of 4-ish generations of hill-folk told like a game of telephone down through the years, and each of the individual stories is told from the perspective of one of the familiy members alive at the time, but neither sequentially nor in any real personal detail. No characters are at all fleshed o
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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
More about Lee Smith...
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“They say experience is the best teacher, but I'll be damned if I know what it teaches you.” 1 likes
“Away acrost his valley he sees Black Mountain rising jagged to the sky...and if he looks to the left on past it, he sees all the furtherest ranges, line on line. Purple and blue and blue again and smoky until you can't tell the mountains apart from the sky. Lord, it'll make a man think something, seeing that. It'll make a man think deep.” 1 likes
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