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Oral History

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  3,604 ratings  ·  190 reviews
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....
Paperback, 286 pages
Published August 27th 1996 by Ballantine Books (first published June 15th 1983)
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Average rating 4.07  · 
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 ·  3,604 ratings  ·  190 reviews

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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 ...more
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
Jan 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
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.
Dec 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, regional-lit
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
Apr 14, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: american
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
Steve Lindahl
May 09, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Aubrey Kramer
Oct 23, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
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 ...more
Jan 08, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Kristine W
Sep 28, 2008 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Jul 16, 2007 rated it really liked it
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!
James Klagge
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
Nov 06, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Rebecca Brothers
Nov 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 10, 2007 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Apr 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
I would honestly rank this book between three and four. I loved the voices of the mountain people, and the glimpses of the unique and vibrant culture of Appalachia. In one long section, the narration was delivered by a young teacher from Richmond, and the language was a little precious -- to show a contrast in education and world view, I am sure, but I didn't enjoy that portion of the book as much.

The blurb summarizes a shell narrative that is extraneous to the real action. There isn't a
Oct 17, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jan 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
I had to read this book for a 300-level English class at my university and I wasn't really expecting to enjoy it. I must say, however, that this book was a very good read. I liked most of the characters and enjoy the sense of change in the region that you get as the book progresses. This might be the Appalachian in me, but especially powerful is the sense of cultural homogenization you get as the modern world creeps in on Appalachia and changes the things that make the people in the region ...more
Jan 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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)
Jul 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 20, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Appalachia fans, North Carolina writers' fans, Southern lit fans, family history fans
I enjoyed this book, but I could have done without the bookend chapters that gave the context of a college student's oral history project. I would have preferred to have those omitted and allow the stories to grow organically without the artifice of the given context.

The stories, which are the "oral histories," can and do stand on their own.
Ginny Adams
Apr 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
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...
Jul 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 18, 2008 rated it liked it
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.
Jun 11, 2008 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.
May 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Oct 01, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 . . .
Feb 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: historical
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.
Mar 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Aug 08, 2017 rated it liked it
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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
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“They say experience is the best teacher, but I'll be damned if I know what it teaches you.” 3 likes
“For once I am living my life rather than watching it pass in review.” 2 likes
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