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On Agate Hill by Lee Smith (final thoughts)

January 26, 2011

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

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2011 7:34 am

    Wow. This sounds good. And like the kind of book that teaches you a thing or two.

  2. January 26, 2011 12:01 pm

    I’ve read a few reviews of this one but it never made my list. Maybe it’s time to reconsider.

  3. January 27, 2011 8:04 am

    I was surprised at how much I enjoyed On Agate Hill, as I am not usually a fan of Southern literature. But I love an epistolary novel! I know I need to go back and read more by this author.

  4. January 27, 2011 11:56 am

    O good advice. I love that. Thanks! :)

  5. stacybuckeye permalink
    January 27, 2011 2:04 pm

    I’m not a fan of books set during war but you’ve made this one look appealing.

  6. January 27, 2011 6:31 pm

    I love this time period…isn’t it amazing how you can read the book one day and not really be into it and then pick it up a month later and bam…you like it!!

  7. January 27, 2011 8:14 pm

    i’ve been reading more contemporary books of late but do need to do some time travel later in the year! i’ll keep this one in mind when i feel like venturing back in time. :)

  8. January 29, 2011 10:00 am

    Juju – Well, I definitely know a bit more about US history than I did before ;)

    Amy – I honestly didn’t think it would be a book I would like and was pleasantly surprised by it.

    Jenny – Epistolary novels are the best. I’m not sure I’ve read one that I haven’t liked.

    Juju – You’re welcome!

    stacybuckeye – I’m not a big fan of war books either. This one is more about one person living in a post-war climate.

    Staci – I know, right? Sometimes you just have to be in the right state of mind to get into a story.

    Nat – Yes, definitely keep this one in mind!

  9. January 31, 2011 8:18 am

    I’ve had that happen sometimes – I’ll pick up a book and feel like , “bleh!” … set it down and come back to it again later, and I wonder why I ever set it down in the first place. I think it all depends on our reading mood. I am definitely putting this one on my list. Thanks for the review!


  1. On Agate Hill by Lee Smith | A Good Stopping Point

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