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On Agate Hill

On Agate Hill

3.8 41
by Lee Smith

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

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.
Roy Hoffman
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
Donna Riftkind
… 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
Publishers Weekly
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.
Library Journal
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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 yet—well, 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
Boston Globe
"On Agate Hill, as lyrical and haunting as an Appalachian ballad, casts a powerful charm."—The Boston Globe
USA Today
"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

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dear Diary,
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

Meet the Author

Born in the small coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia, Lee Smith began writing stories at the age of nine and selling them for a nickel apiece. Since then, she has written seventeen works of fiction, including Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History, and, most recently, Guests on Earth. She has received many awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature and an Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; her novel The Last Girls was a New York Times bestseller as well as winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with her husband, the writer Hal Crowther. Visit her at www.leesmith.com.

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On Agate Hill 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 41 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reluctantly, I just finished On Agate Hill. The literary emphasis is the adept development of the characters. Closely following the amazing characterization is the strength of the southern setting after the Civil War into the following century. There is humor, sadness and loss, and an architypal strong woman of the South. The lyrical prose was a pleasure to read aloud at times with my gentle southern drawl. Lee Smith is a master of imagery and endless rich detail. Loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best writers of our time, and sure to be recognized as one of the best Southern writers of all time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked this book overall for the interesting way in which the main character's story is told-using journal entries and letters. This style offers many different prespectives of the same event or person and allows the author to switch voices. I could have done without the letters/input of the Tuscany Miller character and did not find her neccessary to the plot line.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed this story. I typically read very heavy topics, or Oprah choices, which all can be a tiny bit depressing. This was a clean, wonderfully written story about love and hardships. I enjoyed the diary entries, and the explicit details. Well done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am giving this 4 stars because the post Civil War diary is just awesome to read. The characters really come alive. What I did not like at all was the beginning and end because it had no relationship to the story and cheapened it. So beginning and end get 1 star. If you just skip the letter to the professor you will have a lovely story.
AustenfanCH More than 1 year ago
The story was very good but I kept wishing I could get closer to the main character Molly Petree. Her story is told first from her own childhood diary, then from the journal of a headmistress from her post-civil war school and Molly's letters to a lost childhood friend, then from another teacher's notes (who later became a close friend of Molly's) and THEN court documents, and finally you return to Molly's diary (Molly now being an elderly woman). I think I would have loved any of the stories in the novel alone, but on a whole they seemed to melt away and I never felt as if they had closure or purpose. The book read more like a documentry, which is probably what the author intended...and in saying that she did keep my interest. It is NOT a love story as stated on the front of the novel and I felt extemely cheated as I would have LOVED a novel on Molly and Jacky's life and love. Most of the book was extremely depressing, very little to smile about! No happy ending...but a good read, especially for history lovers! Author is very good on her history!
LininCT More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book immensely. There was never a boring interlude throughout this story. Strong characterizations for the period based around the life of a strong girl who overcame such a difficult life. Tragedy, love, loss, betrayals - the works. We follow her life from childhood through old age. This is a book I will definitely read again and I look forward to now searching for other titles from this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I felt the ending was weird but after reading the author's story about her son, I understood why she ended it the way she did.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Patty2331 More than 1 year ago
Good Story line but the main character falls apart at the end. Didn't care for the ending at all. You took a strong women and she should have had a better ending than the last few chapters and the woman writing her professor, weird...
janonly640 More than 1 year ago
This well written historical novel of the post civil war south will keep you spellbound. I couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story.
Addysma More than 1 year ago
Loved this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry I wasted money on this one... Dli
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I lpved rhe different perspectives of molly's life.
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