On Agate Hill by Lee Smith (final thoughts)
From the author’s website:
It is 1872, Agate Hill, North Carolina. On her thirteenth birthday, Molly Petree peeps out the chink of a window from her secret hiding place up in the eaves of a tumbledown old plantation house to survey a world gone wild, all expectations overthrown, all order gone. “I know I am a spitfire and a burden,” she begins her diary. “I do not care. My family is a dead family, and this is not my home, for I am a refugee girl…but evil or good 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.”
When I first started On Agate Hill I was not smitten. I had just finished Prayers For Sale, which takes place in kind of sort of the same time period (post-Civil War Southern States) and protagonists are left in kind of sort of similar situations (all alone without anything). And where the main character in Prayers For Sale was so effortlessly wonderful, Molly Petree tried much more forcefully to be wonderful. It was a little bit off-putting and I ended up setting down the book and not picking it up again for almost a month.
But boy am I glad I picked it up again! The book starts in 2006 with a letter from Documentary Studies student Tuscany Miller to her professor, outlining a new thesis idea she’s considering. She’s come across a box of “old stuff” which she thinks could be turned into something interesting. The box contains diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings, and various artifacts ranging from the 1870s to the 1920s. She has attached the letters and diary entries for the professor’s perusal and thus begins the story of Molly Petree.
So, Molly is an orphan, living with her aunt, uncle, cousins and various help on their plantation. All is going well until aunt dies, cousins move away, and uncle becomes deathly ill, which is about where the story starts up. The first 120 or so pages of the story are told through Molly’s diary and then is picked up by others, through letters, transcripts, diary entries telling of the twist and turns Molly’s life takes. Twists and turns thirteen-year-old Molly could never have imagined.
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. I can now say what I didn’t think I would say when I first started the book – that I very much recommend On Agate Hill.
If you do decide to read On Agate Hill, one thing I ask is that when you’v finished, go back to the beginning and re-read the list of items Tuscany included with her letter. What was a meaningless set of “old stuff” will become chalked full of importance, each item having a story attached to it.
My rating: 7.5/10