New York Times Book Review
"Lyric intensity. . . . Inventive storytelling. . . . Lee Smith imagines the life of an orphan girl growing up in the post–Civil War South."
—The New York Times Book Review
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Smith plays with authorial antecedents and literary references from Charlotte
Bronte, Faulkner and Milton, and there are echoes of Dickens and Henry James.
. . . In On Agate Hill, author Smith is in full command of her talent for strong stories and evocative characters, and her always fine, shining prose is extra-pearly here. . . . Lee Smith has never written a lousy book; she may never have written a lousy sentence. And so, to declare this novel her best yetwell, that's saying something. On Agate Hill is more ambitious than Family Linen and more exquisitely crafted than Oral History. . . . Smith is such a beautiful writer, tough and full of grace, that soon you are lost in the half-light of Molly's haunted landscape,
listening to the voices of the ghosts, wishing they'd let you stay longer."
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Raleigh News and Observer
"On Agate Hill is a masterpiece and may come to be considered a more important novel than even Smith's wonderful Fair and Tender Ladies. . . . Somebody should give a copy of this book to a member of the Nobel committee."
—Donald Harrington, The News and Observer
The Washington Post
"Set among the ashes of the Civil War, Lee Smith's new novel brings a dead world blazingly to life. . . . A book that seeks to rejuvenate the rapt early reader in us all. . . . [Lee Smith] is a subtly intrepid and challenging storyteller."
—Washington Post Book World
Atlanta Journal Constitution
"Smith is such a beautiful writer, tough and full of grace, that soon you are lost in the half-light of Molly's haunted landscape, listening to the voices of the ghosts, wishing they'd let you stay longer."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"On Agate Hill, as lyrical and haunting as an Appalachian ballad, casts a powerful charm."—The Boston Globe
"The the willful Molly is no hot-house flower, and her determination to live her own life—for better or worse—is the driving force of this powerful novel."—USA Today
"Big, sweeping,epic. "- MSNBC.COM
From the Publisher
"Big, sweeping,epic. "- MSNBC.COM
The story of orphan Molly Petree emerges from a dusty box discovered in an abandoned North Carolina plantation house. The box contains the vestiges of a life that began in Reconstruction days and continued deep into the 20th century, registering the efforts of a heroic woman determined to salvage her few chances. Lee Smith, the author of Fair and Tender Ladies, unwraps this personal saga through ephemera, notes, and court records. In sum, these washed-up pieces become a carefully modulated character portrait of a brave woman. Notable literary fiction.
Young Molly's narration is so deft that her pen sometimes feels too conspicuously guided by the hand of the author. And her voice jars with that of a present-day character Smith uses in passages that awkwardly frame the diary…Gradually, though, with lyric intensity, Smith's inventive storytelling overcomes these misjudgments and, as Molly enters the fussy but rigorous Gatewood Academy, her age catches up with her literary style…"Love lives not in places nor even bodies," Molly writes much later in life, "but in the spaces between them." On Agate Hill works best when her appealing voice, at its most natural and ardent, fills those spaces.
The New York Times
… 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.
The Washington Post
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) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Former beauty queen Tuscany Miller gave up her dissertation on "Beauty Shop Culture in the South: Big Hair and Community" to get married. When her disastrous marriage ends, Tuscany discovers a young girl's diary in the attic of her father's bed-and-breakfast, a rundown postbellum plantation called Agate Hill. Tuscany's letters to her former doctoral advisor alternate with entries from this diary, kept by young Molly Petree, a Civil War orphan in North Carolina driven from her home, Agate Hill, by the Yankees and handed 'round from relatives to finishing schools until her 18th year. Molly's own diary and the diaries of her teachers and friends form a patchwork quilt of Molly's life from birth to death. Placed in Gatewood Academy by a benefactor, headstrong, beautiful, and independent Molly wins the affection of her fellow pupils and scorns the hypocrisy of the founders of the academy. Upon graduation, she heads for a mountain school and falls in love with a fun-loving, guitar-picking holler man until mysterious circumstances end the relationship. In the end, Molly returns to Agate Hill to live out her life surrounded by memories. 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. Highly recommended.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
The story of a self-described "ghost girl" who survives the Civil War devastation that claims her family is told in the North Carolina author's rich, complex 12th novel (after The Last Girls, 2002). Spirited orphan Molly Petree's diary and correspondence describe her childhood at Agate Hill plantation, raised among the large extended family of her Uncle Junius Hall, a well-meaning patriarch too passive to resist tenant farmer's widow Selena Vogell, who installs herself as housekeeper, marries him and emerges triumphant, as Agate Hill's occupants disperse-among them adolescent Molly, claimed as the ward of her late father's best friend and battlefield companion Simon Black. Molly's student years at highfalutin' Gatewood Academy are revealed through the diaries of its unstable headmistress Mariah Snow and her sensible sister, teacher Agnes Rutherford, who'll accompany Molly on the next leg of her journey: to the one-room Bobcat School in the "Lost Province" of western North Carolina near the Tennessee border, where Molly seeks escape from Simon Black's recurring reappearances by agreeing to marry a "rich boy" she doesn't love. Fate then intervenes in the person of lusty country singer Jacky Jarvis, and, as his first cousin BJ discloses, Molly's blissful union with Jacky endures despite a wrenching succession of stillborn children (their tiny graves "Just a row of rock babies up on the mountain like a little stone wall"), until he is murdered and Molly stands accused of the crime. Her story ends back on Agate Hill, once again in her diary's words, as she nurses Simon Black during his last days, and finally learns the true nature of his claim on her. An authentic American saga,bittersweet as an Appalachian ballad, peopled with wonderfully vivid characters, so brilliantly constructed we never even notice the quilt-like artfulness of its design. 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.
Read an Excerpt
This book belongs to me Molly Petree age thirteen today May 20 in the year of our Lord 1872, Agate Hill, North Carolina. I am an orphan girl. This is my own book of my own self given to me by the preachers wife Nora Gwyn who said, This little diary is for you my dear unfortunate child, to be your friend and confi dent, to share all your thoughts and deepest secrets for I know how much you need a friend and also how much you love to read and write. I do believe you have a natural gift for it. Now it is my special hope that you will set down upon these pages your own memories of your lovely mother and your brave father, and of your three brothers as well, and of all that has befallen you. For I believe this endeavor might help you, Molly Petree. So I urge you to take pen in hand commencing your diary with these words, Thy will be done O Lord on Earth as it is in Heaven, Amen.
Well, I have not done this!
And I will not do it either no matter how much I love pretty Nora Gwyn who looks like a lady on a fancy plate and has taught me such few lessons as I have had since Aunt Fannie died. NO for I mean to write in secrecy and stelth the truth as I see it. I know I am a spitfire and a burden. I do not care. My family is a dead family, and this is not my home, for I am a refugee girl.
I am like the ruby-throated hummingbird that comes again and again to Fannies red rosebush but lights down never for good and all, always flying on. And it is true that often I feel so lonesome for all of them that are gone.
I live in a house of ghosts.
I was born before the Surrender and dragged from pillar to post as Mamma always said until we fetched up here in North Carolina after Columbia fell. Our sweet Willie was born there, into a world of war. He was real little all waxy and bloody, and Old Bess put him into a dresser drawer while the fires burned red outside the windows. Mamma used to tell it in that awful whisper which went on and on through the long hot nights when she could not sleep and it was my job to wet the cool cloths required for her forehead which I did faithfully. I loved my mamma. But I was GLAD when she died, I know this is a sin. I have not told it before. But I am writing it down anyway as Nora Gwyn said and I will write it all down every true thing in black and white upon the page, for evil or good it is my own true life and I WILL have it. I will.
I am the legal ward of my uncle Junius Jefferson Hall who is not really my uncle at all but my mothers first cousin a wise and mournful man who has done the best he could for us all I reckon. We arrived here during the last days of the War to a house running over all ready thus giving Uncle Junius more than thirty people on this place to feed, negro and white alike. Uncle Junius used to be a kind strong man but he is sick and seems so sad and lost in thought now since Fannie died.
This is his wife my dear aunt