On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

2006. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Hardcover. 367 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In post-Civil War North Carolina, young orphan Molly Petree grows up under the care of her Uncle Junius in the decaying home of Agate Hill. After his death, Molly’s future looks bleak until a wealthy friend of her father’s sends her off to a girls’ school. From there, Molly’s life takes a few turns she did not expect, including being accused of murder.

On Agate Hill is told through letters and diary entries (not all of them from Molly’s hand) and also from courtroom testimony transcripts.


I first discovered Lee Smith through her wonderful epistolary novel, Fair and Tender Ladies. On Agate Hill is quite similar to the earlier Fair and Tender Ladies. Both books feature letters as storytelling devices, and in both the main character writes to another character that does not write back for reasons unknown. Molly Petree and Fair and Tender Ladies‘ protagonist Ivy Rowe are similar in spirit – smart, willful, defiant of society’s mores and strongly connected to their home place. Their life events are quite different, however.

Part of me minded the close similarity, but on the other hand, I think Lee Smith is at her best in this kind of novel: a story that follows one protagonist from youth to old age, spanning historical eras in the rural South.

On Agate Hill is sometimes told by Molly’s point of view, but we also get to see her from the perspective of her adversarial, psychologically damaged headmistress, as well as that of a sympathetic and perceptive teacher. I didn’t always like Molly Petree or the decisions that she made, but she was always an interesting character.

Lee Smith always does a great job in creating a colorful cast of characters and On Agate Hill is no exception. My favorite characters were Molly’s childhood friend Mary White (the last letter included from Mary is wonderful) and Agnes Rutherford, Molly’s teacher. A number of characters have elements of folklore to them. Indeed, Molly Petree herself becomes a character in a folk song.

I was confused on a crucial plot point, namely the truth about the murder for which Molly Petree is accused. After I finished the book, I found a discussion of this plot point on Amazon and read what another reader said was Lee Smith’s explanation of it. It was hard to reconcile that explanation with what was provided in the text, but I can make an allowance considering that the story is never told from an omniscient viewpoint, but always from one or another character’s specific viewpoint. The truth is obscured by other characters’ motivations.

On Agate Hill was a fun historical fiction read, a genre I really don’t delve into that often. Smith’s research into the era is smoothly worked in. I learned historical tidbits such as the fact that there briefly existed the State of Franklin which consisted of Ashe County, N.C. and the bordering part of Tennessee. Also, I learned that there were groups of Confederates who fled to South America after they lost the Civil War.

Lee Smith has definitely established herself as a go-to author for me. I look forward to reading more of her books.

Others’ reviews:

alita.reads – “While Molly and I didn’t start out best of friends, I warmed towards her greatly during the course of the book. By the end I was sad to see her go and now remember her fondly.”

Jenny’s Books – ” . . . I became completely absorbed in this one, and I kept putting it down to do other things, and then picking it back up five minutes later because I wanted to know what would happen.  A lot of bad things, it turns out, but it’s okay, because the book is imbued with Molly’s indomitable nature, and whatever happens, you get the feeling Molly will manage it.”

The Magic Lasso – “I highly recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction, especially of Southern and women’s history. Molly Petree is a character I won’t soon forget.”


Filed under Book Review, Historical Fiction

8 responses to “On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

  1. Although I really liked On Agate Hill, for some reason reading more of Lee Smith’s stuff never really crossed my mind. Now hearing that Fair and Tender Ladies is a similar sort of book, I may need to read that one!

    Thanks for the link love 🙂

  2. I went through a big Lee Smith phase years ago, despite not generally being a fan of contemporary Southern authors. I can’t remember what all I read, but I’m pretty sure Fair and Tender Ladies and Family Linen were among the ones I read, and I did like them quite a lot. I really ought to give her another try and see what I think now.

  3. Oh, I forgot about this book! I really need to try more of Lee Smith — I read On Agate Hill, thought it was wonderful, and then immediately reverted to considering Lee Smith a Southern author and thus not something I’d be interested in. Very silly. I’m going to read Fair and Tender Ladies.

  4. Wonderful review, Christy! I haven’t heard of Lee Smith before – she looks like a wonderful author from your description. Sorry to know that the author makes the ending a bit confusing and her explanation doesn’t fit in with the facts of the book. But glad to know that you enjoyed the book otherwise.

  5. Nan

    The only book I’ve read by her is The Christmas Letters, which I love and have read a few times. There was nothing confusing. Also told through letters. I wrote a bit about it here:


  6. alitareads – I’ve read four books by Lee Smith and Fair and Tender Ladies was the first one I read and still my favorite.

    Teresa – Lee Smith is less genteel South and more rugged Appalachia territory which is part of her appeal for me.

    Jenny – I definitely recommend Fair and Tender Ladies! I loved reading about Ivy from when she was a schoolgirl to when she was in old age. It was kind of epic.

    Vishy – I recommend Fair and Tender Ladies as the place to start with Lee Smith. That’s where I started with her.

    Nan – I actually did read The Christmas Letters this past Christmas, based on your recommendation, I believe. I didn’t end up reviewing it on the blog however. I think I prefer Lee Smith when she writes about older time periods. The Christmas Letters started out in the early 20th century but quickly progressed, due to its short length. It didn’t have the epic feel I enjoyed so much in Fair and Tender Ladies, and also now with On Agate Hill.

  7. Ooh, this sounds like one I should read! I like the era and the whole idea of telling a story in letters. I’ll have to look into both this author’s books, though I’ll be sure to space them so they don’t feel too similar to me.

  8. Aarti – Yeah, I think spacing between them is a good idea because the similarities jumped out at me even though it’s been a few years since I’ve read Fair and Tender Ladies.

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