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On Agate Hillby Lee Smith
Synopses & Reviews
A dusty box discovered in the wreckage of a North Carolina plantation house contains the remnants of an extraordinary life: an 1870s diary of a young girl, letters, poems, songs, newspaper clippings, court records, marbles, rocks, dolls, and bones. It's through these treasured mementos that we meet the unforgettable heroine of Lee Smith's new novel.
Raised in the smoldering ruin of the post-Civil War American South, young Molly Petree, now orphaned, has no intention of wasting time on self-pity. She means to live her life to its fullest. So, when a mysterious benefactor appears out of her father's past to rescue her, she doesn't look back — until she is an old woman and returns to the farm on Agate Hill. Spanning half a century, On Agate Hill tells the story of a woman who risks everything to remain true to herself. It's a novel of obsessive love, unexpected adventures, and luck — both good and bad. Like a ballad of the Old South, Molly Petree's tale resonates with passion, humor, and drama.
Lee Smith, a virtuoso of voice and vision, creates flesh-and-blood characters tempered with equal doses of comedy and tragedy. Like her popular and beloved novels Oral History and Fair and Tender Ladies, On Agate Hill is storytelling at its very best.
"Following her 2001 Southern Book Critics Circle award — winning novel, The Last Girls, Smith's 10th novel chronicles the post — Civil War life of a precocious Southern orphan using a slapdash patchwork of journal entries, letters, poems, recipes, songs, catechism and court records. Molly Petree, the daughter of a slain Confederate soldier, begins a diary on her 13th birthday in May 1872, near Hillsborough, N.C., at Agate Hill, the plantation of her legal guardian, Uncle Junius Hall. Seeing herself as 'a ghost girl wafting through this ghost house,' Molly falls under the spiteful devices of Selena, the scheming housekeeper, who marries a terminally ill Junius to inherit the plantation. Under Selena's watch, Molly is neglected, mistreated and raped before Simon Black, who fought alongside Molly's father, rescues her and enrolls her in the Gatewood Academy, where she becomes 'an educated, fancy woman.' After graduating, Molly marries sweet-talking Jacky, but tragedy dogs her: Jacky dies a particularly miserable death, their baby dies and when Molly returns to Agate Hill, she finds it in ruins. Molly's story is moving, but Smith's structure — the narrative's pieces are the contents of 'a box of old stuff' found during Agate Hill's renovation — is needlessly contrived. (Sept. 19)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Set among the ashes of the Civil War, Lee Smith's new novel brings a dead world blazingly to life. Other contemporary novels — Stephen Wright's 'The Amalgamation Polka,' for instance, and E.L. Doctorow's 'The March' — have reimagined the period by evoking a you-are-there immediacy, plunking the reader bewilderingly into the middle of battles and field hospitals. But in her 12th novel, Smith goes... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a different way, using convention and contrivance to tell a deliberately mediated story that feels exotic but familiar at the same time. The exoticism springs from the distancing way Smith has chosen to tell her story. Instead of a straightforward narrative, she's invented artifacts (diaries, letters, court documents, poems and ballads) that gradually divulge the tale of Molly Petree, a girl orphaned in North Carolina in the late 1860s whose life unfolds through Reconstruction into the early 20th century. Smith has used similar hodgepodge techniques in previous novels, most successfully in 'Oral History' (1983) and 'Fair and Tender Ladies' (1988). Her approach is particularly effective here, acknowledging our preoccupation with the post-Civil War era while emphasizing its remoteness from our own time. Molly Petree's diary begins on her 13th birthday in 1872 at a ruined North Carolina plantation called Agate Hill, the home of her dying uncle, Junius. 'I am like a ghost girl wafting through this ghost house seen by none,' she writes; for in addition to relatives, former slaves and a tenant-farming family, the crumbling estate is filled with the spirits of Molly's four siblings, her mother and her father. As supplies dwindle and conditions deteriorate, Molly's daily life requires her to witness one macabre tableau after another, from a dead slave hanging from a tree to the dug-up bones of a Yankee soldier's hand; from the ransacking of the house's few remaining treasures to the machinations of the slatternly widow who's determined to marry Uncle Junius and inherit the estate. After Molly is molested by a freeloading 'traveling man' and more of her loved ones abandon Agate Hill or die, she's rescued rather suddenly by Simon Black, a wealthy, enigmatic friend of her father's, who whisks her away to an elite Virginia boarding school for young ladies. The novel shifts perspectives as Smith shuffles her collection of artifacts from Molly's diary to the letters and journals of other characters, including the academy's long-suffering headmistress and her spinster sister. When Molly's world expands outside the desolation of Agate Hill, her personality also evolves: At school, the plucky orphan resembles less a troubled Sara Crewe and more a resourceful Jane Eyre or Becky Sharp, relying on her wits to win popularity and academic prestige. After four years of decorous education, Molly rejects several offers of marriage from wealthy suitors and sets off for another new life, as a schoolteacher in a far-flung Appalachian mountain holler. This is familiar territory for Smith, who has chronicled the alpine beauty and complex folk culture of North Carolina's western pocket in a handful of previous novels. Here Molly marries a twinkly eyed country musician named Jacky Jarvis and thrives for several decades with the financial assistance of her old patron Simon Black, first as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse and then as a storekeeper. But plenty of sorrows cloud her happiness: A stone marks each hilltop grave where her seven children are buried, 'just a row of rock babies up on the mountain like a little stone wall.' Jacky is charming but unfaithful. Eventually, Molly returns to what is left of Agate Hill, where Simon Black is dying, and learns how his shadowy past intersects with her own family history. The orphan girl, the mysterious benefactor, the wrecked plantation, the school for young ladies, the music-lovin' mountain folk: It would be hard to find more ossified literary archetypes, and harder still for any writer to breathe new life into them. But Smith, who is a subtly intrepid and challenging storyteller, never allows her narrative to slip into kitsch, stereotype or melodrama. On the contrary, she uses these archetypes as touchstones, a bit like iconic movie images, to trigger the reserves of a reader's emotional memory: Here's the same delight that 'A Little Princess' once brought, and there's the unapologetic pleasure of 'Gone With the Wind.' It's not coincidental that Smith refers to Molly, even in her old age, as perennially childlike, for this is a book that seeks to rejuvenate the rapt early reader in us all. Donna Rifkind is a regular contributor to The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Donna Rifkind, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Lee Smith is quite simply one of North Carolina's treasures, and the publication of a new book by her is always a happy event....The first part of the novel may seem slow. But so much happens in the last 200 pages that we are, by the end, thankful for the pace of the early sections." Charlotte Observer
"Smith has worked her magic yet again; her rollicking humor, keen sense of place, deft characterizations, and raucous storytelling bring to life yet another set of memorable people and places." Library Journal
"One of those books you can either roam contentedly around in for days, or devour at once, in a rush of pure pleasure. Take your pick." Kirkus Reviews
Raised in the ruin of the post-Civil War American South, young Molly Petree, now orphaned, has no intention of wasting time on self-pity. So, when a mysterious benefactor appears out of her father's past to rescue her, she doesn't look back — until she is an old woman and returns to the farm on Agate Hill.
A dusty box discovered in the wreckage of a once prosperous plantation on Agate Hill in North Carolina contains the remnants of an extraordinary life: diaries, letters, poems, songs, newspaper clippings, court records, marbles, rocks, dolls, and bones. It's through these treasured mementos that we meet Molly Petree.
Raised in those ruins and orphaned by the Civil War, Molly is a refugee who has no interest in self-pity. When a mysterious benefactor appears out her father's past to rescue her, she never looks back.
Spanning half a century, On Agate Hill follows Molly's passionate, picaresque journey through love, betrayal, motherhood, a murder trial--and back home to Agate Hill under circumstances she never could have imagined.
About the Author
Lee Smith is an American fiction author who typically incorporates much of her home roots in the Southeastern United States in her works of literature.
Table of Contents
Letter from Tuscany Miller
Agate Hill 5
Notes from Tuscany
Paradise Lost 129
Further Notes from Tuscany
Up on Bobcat 217
Plain View 273
Another Country 311
Final Notes from Tuscany
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