“Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker,” by Katherine Snow Smith

Katherine Snow Smith

Reviewed by Rhonda J. Ray

Reading Katherine Snow Smith’s Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker (She Writes Press, 2019) is like bumping into an old friend or meeting someone you hope will be a friend.

I grew up reading The News & Observer, delivered every morning to my family home located a half hour from North Carolina’s capital city. Later, in my early working years in downtown Raleigh, I read the Raleigh Times, permanently put to bed in 1989. Learning that Smith’s father was the renowned editor and columnist for these prominent newspapers and realizing her mother had taught me while I was an undergraduate at North Carolina State University connected me instantly with the author and her stories. She, or at least her parents, really are old friends.

In an era of struggling print journalism, Smith’s collection of personal essays offers glimpses into the life of a journalist who is also a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, employer, woman, human being. Her stories span from her late high school years when she chose to follow her father’s path and attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to more recent chapters of her life: the end of a marriage, forays into online dating, and health struggles, including colon cancer. These narratives teach readers about loss and recompense, surviving and thriving.

Smith knows her craft well. She is a sharp observer, skilled writer, and an engaging and entertaining storyteller. She recounts experiences which made me laugh, but two stories stand out like diamonds are those that made me cry, one about irrevocable loss and the other about a profound discovery of the meaning of love.

The title of her collection led me to expect a spoof southern stereotypes, poniarding them, and sending them to the trash bin for good. Fortunately, the writer transcends such writing. In fact, she doesn’t address southern “rules” or stereotypes at all in these essays.

The author is southern, from Raleigh, but her personal narratives are merely set in the South, and a few occur well beyond the southern region. The stories narrate a life lived: fleeting happiness, enduring heartache, and the choices we make that lead from way to way, sometimes turning out well and sometimes making us look foolish, if not to others, then to ourselves.

Each of the 22 essays is titled with a “rule,” seemingly dispensing good advice but more often expressing irony. The accompanying narratives show how and why the author arrived at the rules, usually by failing to follow these nuggets of wisdom. The rules ultimately describe lessons learned from life experiences.

In the first two essays, we witness the author’s self-deprecating humor, which characterizes most of the essays. First, she embarrasses herself in front of President Barack Obama despite her efforts to impress. Then, to fulfill a birthday wish, she chaperones two teenage girls to a weekend music festival, unaware of what’s in store. These first essays are warm-ups. We don’t yet have a sense of who the narrator is, but developing a relationship of any kind takes time. Her tone is irreverent and flippant, but just when readers anticipate a collection of laugh-out-loud epiphanies, we are stopped in our tracks and encouraged to wade into deeper territory.

The revelations in the essays that follow are gradual, like a cover sliding off a painting to reveal the rich images and vibrant colors underneath or like meeting someone for the first time, moving from small talk to more intimate conversation.

Although many of these stories are humorous, others convey tragedy, hardship, regret, or hopefulness. We learn about her determination to accomplish seemingly impossible goals, the sacrifices others make for their friend and colleague, an extraordinary fascination with celebrities, the joys and trials of parenting, and life’s unexpected turns that catch us all out.

Readers come to know someone willing to dip her toes into obscure waters, laugh at herself, cry at times, and carry on. Family members, friends, and colleagues accompany her on her journey and emerge in supporting roles, but Smith’s focus is on a life lived and observed with thoughtfulness, courage, and good humor.

The varied textures and richness of the experiences and Smith’s openness and vulnerability endear the narrator to readers. We don’t want this new friendship to end and can only hope that Smith continues writing, sharing new chapters of her life, offering us frequent laughs, but always touching our emotions and opening our eyes to new sights and insights.

And those rules to live by? Sometimes, they’re meant to be, need to be, broken.

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