On Agate Hill

I read Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith when I was in high school, still too young for it. I remember feeling like it was, perhaps, going over my head. I knew there was something a little bit wrong with the black-and-white way I was approaching this book that never intended to be a moral tale (I did not approve of all of Ivy;s decisions), but I couldn’t quite get past that and immerse myself in the book’s world.

I hadn’t read a Lee Smith book since then, but I had heard a lot of buzz about On Agate Hill (including the News & Observer‘s, “Somebody should give a copy of this book to a member of the Nobel committee” recommendation), so I was looking forward to reading it. Based on my previous Lee Smith experience, I was expecting a story in which the place was as much a character as the people, a story in which people make bad decisions because that’s how people act in real life. Those expectations were met, but it doesn’t begin to tell the story of this book.

On Agate Hill
is the story of Molly Petree, who is 13 when the novel opens and lives with her uncle’s family in Agate Hill, North Carolina. Her father died in the Civil War, and her mother passed away after finding refuge at Agate Hill, leaving her an orphan. The first part of the story is told through her diary, which, I must confess, I found difficult to get through. I have read many books that started with a young girl’s diary and moved quickly on to “the real story.” As I was reading the first part of On Agate Hill, I kept waiting for “the real story” to start. I finally realized that I was thinking about the story in the wrong way – instead of simply setting up the story, the diary was a part of the story itself, the first act. And when I changed the way I approached it, the novel opened itself up to me.

Molly’s life consists of hiding in the attic, playing fairies and collecting “phenomena” with her friend Mary White, and being bossed by the housekeeper who eventually marries her uncle.

The second act of the book is set at Gatewood Academy, where Molly is attending school thanks to the generosity of Simon Black, a man who fought with her father and has, for reasons known only to himself, appointed himself as Molly’s benefactor. Much of this section of the book is from the diary of the school’s headmistress, Mariah Snow. Mrs. Snow hates Molly, despises her, and attributes all kinds of scheming to the most innocent of Molly’s actions. As much as she tries to make life miserable for Molly, Molly escapes this time mostly unscathed. Her life so far has taught her to think of herself as a “bad girl,” and she resolves not to lose her heart to a man, believing it can only lead to trouble.

From school, Molly becomes, along with Mariah Snow’s sister Agnes, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on Bobcat Mountain. This part of the tale is told in part from Agnes Rutherford’s journal. Molly thrives here, and finally falls in love with a banjo player named Jacky Jarvis, a man who understands her and whose passion for life rivals her own. Through their love, Molly and Jacky find a kind of peace despite his philandering ways and the fact that none of their children survive past toddler age. Even so, when Jacky is murdered, Molly is accused of the crime. The fourth act of the book is the story of their marriage, pieced together from documents relating to the trial.

When she is acquitted, Molly returns to Agate Hill, which has been bought by her benefactor Simon Black, and there she closes out her days, revealing to us, finally, some of the answers about Simon’s involvement in her life. The book ends as it begins, with Molly’s diary.

The novel is also given structure by the inclusion of Tuscany Miller, a college student who has found the diary and box of phenomena, and includes her notes on them from time to time. It was a good sign that, when I saw her notes at the end of the first section, I found it rather jarring. I realized that I had finally immersed myself in the world of the book.

Lee Smith has managed to write an account of a lively, imaginative girl who grows into a headstrong woman. She makes decisions that might seem unwise in the eyes of the world, but she also manages to grasp on to love anywhere she can find it, and hold on with both hands. One of the reviews I read mentioned that Molly might owe something to Lee Smith’s memory of Anne of Green Gables (I don’t know if that came from an interview or what). Having just reread AoGG, I have to say that I like that comparison. Not for the reason you’d expect, though – when I read AoGG now, it seems more and more unlikely to me that Anne could have survived being unloved for so long and still have come out of those experiences as such an open-hearted caring person. Of course I buy it within the world of the book, but Molly Petree is given a little bit more depth than Anne, a little more grit. She doesn’t escape her childhood unscathed, but, like Anne, she makes the best of it. They have different ways of doing it, but they both thrive on imagination. (That’s not to say that I’m recommending this book to Anne fans. Yes, it’s similarly themed in some ways, but this is a much darker book.) Molly is a character I will not soon forget, a woman who overcomes hardship without her story being trite or unrealistic. This was not an easy book for me to get through – not because of the story but because of the depth of the writing – but, in the end, I found it was worth the effort.

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