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.
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.”