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On Agate Hill

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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 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.

367 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2006

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About the author

Lee Smith

48 books859 followers
Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, nine-year-old Lee Smith was already writing--and selling, for a nickel apiece--stories about her neighbors in the coal boomtown of Grundy and the nearby isolated "hollers." Since 1968, she has published eleven novels, as well as three collections of short stories, and has received many writing awards.

The sense of place infusing her novels reveals her insight into and empathy for the people and culture of Appalachia. Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not 10 miles from the Kentucky border. The Smith home sat on Main Street, and the Levisa River ran just behind it. Her mother, Virginia, was a college graduate who had come to Grundy to teach school.

Her father, Ernest, a native of the area, operated a dime store. And it was in that store that Smith's training as a writer began. Through a peephole in the ceiling of the store, Smith would watch and listen to the shoppers, paying close attention to the details of how they talked and dressed and what they said.

"I didn't know any writers," Smith says, "[but] I grew up in the midst of people just talking and talking and talking and telling these stories. My Uncle Vern, who was in the legislature, was a famous storyteller, as were others, including my dad. It was very local. I mean, my mother could make a story out of anything; she'd go to the grocery store and come home with a story."

Smith describes herself as a "deeply weird" child. She was an insatiable reader. When she was 9 or 10, she wrote her first story, about Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell heading out west together to become Mormons--and embodying the very same themes, Smith says, that concern her even today. "You know, religion and flight, staying in one place or not staying, containment or flight--and religion." From Lee Smith's official website.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 505 reviews
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book490 followers
April 27, 2020
There is no doubt that a tremendous strength was required of the men and women who survived the Civil War and rebuilt their lives during the Reconstruction period in the South. Scarlett O’Hara, fist in the air, promising never to be hungry or let any of those she loves go hungry, is seared upon my mind, and now, Molly Petree, refusing to become a “ghost girl” will be printed there beside her. For as she says, I live in a house of ghosts. I dare say she lives in a world of ghosts.

I am like a ghost girl wafting through this ghost house seen by none. I truly think I would blow away save for this piece of fool’s gold I keep here in my pocket for good luck.

I am taken by the way some writers can paint a picture with words that make you feel the physical and mental stress of their characters. Lee Smith does this beautifully.

He will burn in Hell for sure if there is one. But I am so cold right now as I sit here writing that Hell sounds pretty good. I put socks on my hands for gloves but they are cracked and bleeding anyhow. Liddy rubs them with lard. My face is as red and rough as a cob. I cannot write my hands are too cold. This is my blood on this page. It is snowing again.

I wanted to pull on a blanket, and believe me, it is not cold in my apartment.

Lee Smith became a favorite writer for me as soon as I read Fair and Tender Ladies, and On Agate HillOn Agate Hill reawakened the magic that she planted in me then. As I loved Ivy Rowe, so I love Molly Petree. The reader is brought to that love through much the same device, for we read her diary and her letters and her thoughts that are meant only for herself and are so uncensored and honest they make one cry. She experiences losses that seem unbearable, injustices that sting, and grace that seems deific to me, for she is so often saved by a simple love. She is so deserving, because she is so magnanimous; she loves the souls of people, not their outer visages; she never looks down at anyone.

Molly learns about love as she leads her life, and we learn about love with her. It is found in unexpected places. It is ever present and only undiscovered.

Now I understood that love does not reside in places, neither in the Capulet’s tomb nor the dales of Arcady nor the Kingdom by the Sea not in any of those other poems that Mary White and I read so long ago, love lives not in places nor even bodies but in the spaces between them, the long and lovely sweep of air and sky, and in the living heart and memory until that is gone too, and we are all of us wanderers, as we have always been, upon the earth.
Profile Image for Heidi.
8 reviews1 follower
May 21, 2009
The novel was rather disappointing I thought. Basically, it's the story of Molly, a little girl who's orphaned right after the civil war. She's taken in by her Uncle who lives on Agate Hill, an old plantation falling to ruin.

**SPOILER!!!** Through diary enteries, county papers, and court reports, we follow Molly as her life makes one dynamic change after another (her Uncle's mistress tries to take over, she befriends a sick little girl, family members die off or leave one by one, etc.). Eventually she is shipped off to an all-girls school, and finally makes her way to a little town in the Appalachian Mountains to teach. She eventually falls in love with a man, who is eventually murdered.

The story ends with her back on Agate Hill as on old women with her Father's Friend's Servant and her blind midgit cousin.

The entire book was rather dull and uninteresting. As a fan of historical novels, this one didn't explain the times and lifestyle to my satisfaction. There wasn't a lot of likable characters in the novel, and the murder of Molly's husband is never fully explained, leaving the reader rather frustrated (I went online to see if anyone could make sense of it, and I found a forum where many readers felt this way. Someone finally wrote the author, and she responded, but even HER take on what happened wasn't satisfying!).

In all honesty, if you're looking for a good read that leaves you feeling fulfilled, moved, and changed, look elsewhere. :P
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Erin.
258 reviews9 followers
January 22, 2009
I hardly know where to start with this review. The book begins in the years following the civil war told mainly from journal entries and letters. Molly as a 14 year old writes, "I want to live so hard and love so much I will use myself all the way up like a candle, it seems to me like this is the point of it all, not Heaven”

The rest of the book details how she lives her life up like a candle. She leads a tragic life from the very first "dear diary," and although there are wonderful times filled with warmth and joy in the end I felt completely depressed. One of the closing thoughts is this, “love lives not in places nor even bodies but in the spaces between them, the long and lovely sweep of air and sky, and in the living heart and memory until that is gone too, and we are all wanderers, as we have always been, upon the earth”

I loved the author's descriptions and voice. I would love to read more by her but I'm already haunted enough by this one.

FYI: There is some language and some difficult scenes like a young girl being raped.
Profile Image for Old Man and the Read.
1,011 reviews29 followers
December 3, 2022
This is my second book by Lee Smith and it is written in a very similar style to the first, Fair and Tender Ladies. The story is about the life of Molly Petree, from the age of thirteen until her death. The first third of the book is told by Molly through daily entries into her diary about her life at Agate Hill, a former plantation, where she went to live with her uncle for a couple of years after being orphaned and the rest of the book is told through letters by various people about the rest of her life. It is a mostly tragic tale of heartbreak and sorrow with occasional joyful parts and a little on the depressing side but was exceptionally well written.
Profile Image for Rosemary.
Author 6 books59 followers
November 30, 2007
Lee Smith has a lovely way with words and history and tells an enthralling tale, following orphan Molly Petree from childhood to old age. The voice of each character is distinct and engaging. Now that I'm done, I miss these characters!
Profile Image for Cathleen.
42 reviews9 followers
November 26, 2011
I can't say that I love this book quite as much as my first novel by Lee Smith -- Fair and Tender Ladies -- but those are some huge shoes to fill.

Two of Lee Smith's biggest strengths are her ability to create a profound sense of loss in a reader and her talent for creating a sense of place. My favorite books often stick with me less in terms of plot and more like memories from my own life -- in fragmented but lucid snapshots of place. I remember my own childhood mostly as a series of places: a sunken spot of ground outside the kitchen window that bubbled over with sudsy froth when my mom washed dishes, a desk against the door leading to stairs that wound up to our attic, the dank "ice potato" dirt floor in one of the barns near the house. These places are as real to me as when I was actually in them, and Smith's places -- Molly's attic cubby at Agate Hill, Chattie Badger's lean-to room, and the general store -- are just as real. Even as details of the story are lost to my memory these places will remain.

I've gone back and forth, though, about whether I think Smith's overall technique worked in this novel. On Agate Hill demonstrates her varied writing talents as she pulls together the story of Molly Petree using diary entries, letters, court documents, and school records. She even wrote a folk ballad, a portion of which is available for streaming at http://www.5-string.com/sound/5sp06003/M...

At first I thought the use of these fictional documents demonstrated her ability to weave together a story in an inventive and difficult way as Molly moves from Agate Hill -- a small Southern plantation literally and figuratively mired in the mess of the Civil War and, subsequently, Reconstruction-- to the North Carolina mountains. The move wouldn't seem that far to us now, but it was a huge one for Molly, and it felt jolting as I read it. I missed Agate Hill, and I started to doubt Lee Smith's skill. The story felt like two separate novels.

That feeling nagged at me for a large portion of the book. I love Appalachian literature, so it didn't make sense that the portion of Molly's story that took place in the mountains should irritate me as much as it did. What I eventually realized is that the transition is supposed to be jarring. It is supposed to feel different and uncomfortable, and Molly's childhood at Agate Hill is supposed to feel like another lifetime. Why? Because that is the way shit is, and I see that more and more as I get older. We change, the people around us change, the world changes, and bad stuff happens. I'm not kidding myself into thinking I'm being profound here, but I now recognize that until the last few years, my understanding of those ideas was almost completely intellectual. Nothing is the same, and in a lot of ways I don't feel like the same person as I was 15 years ago. When I say that I mean that I feel like two people -- sort of the way Molly felt to me like one person at Agate Hill and another in the mountains. Those two people were really similar in a lot of ways, yet they felt different, separate. Ultimately, then, the disparate pieces of the novel work really well -- enough so that I still feel a little agitated.

If I could give this book 3.5 stars I would, but I can't, so I rounded up. I'm not sure why it wouldn't be higher. I think there is something about this story that makes me profoundly uncomfortable, but I don't know what that is. I can't access that particular emotion, and I can't afford therapy sessions to help me work out my literary feelings. I suspect, though, that it has to do with the deep and persistent feeling of sadness throughout the novel. It is a little too real and hits too close to home. Of course, it isn't fair to judge a book that way, but today my gut wins, and it says 3.5 stars. Also, I wasn't a huge fan of the frame narrative, and that likely plays into my rating as well.

One last thing, and this probably says a lot about me, but I never took enough psychology classes to know. I LOVE books with hidden rooms. I can still picture the hidden room in The Beth Book where Beth Caldwell did her reading in secret, a small space that she controlled absolutely because her husband didn't know about it. Similarly, Molly's cubbyhole holds her secrets. As readers we are granted access to Molly's space and everything it holds. I just really love that.
Profile Image for Suzanne Moore.
630 reviews113 followers
January 1, 2013
I randomly picked up this audio book while living in Texas. It turned out to be quite a coincidence that I chose to listen to this book at the precise time that I did. Let me begin with a little background on the novel. First there are two related story lines in this book … a past that contributes to a present.

In the present Tuscany Miller, college student, is living in the mountains of North Carolina with her father and his partner. They have been restoring a recently acquired house into a bed and breakfast inn. While Tuscany is exploring the attic of this house, she finds a box of old letters and diaries from the post Civil War era. She becomes so absorbed in the hidden stories behind these documents that she uses them as a basis for her thesis paper. This brings the past alive on Agate Hill.

The diaries are written by Molly Petree, a young girl, orphaned by the Civil War and follow through her early years. She is sent to an all-girls school in the Appalachian mountains and settles there as an adult, working as a teacher. Letters and more diaries, along with newspaper clippings are saved though the years, telling Molly's story. The people she becomes close to and her mysterious benefactor are referred to often, becoming characters in the unfolding drama. When Molly marries, she returns to her childhood home and faces multiple tragedies. She has numerous still-born children and then her husband is murdered. It is uncertain what exactly took place … a fire destroyed the crime scene. Molly continues to survive despite her hardships. I'm inclined to believe there were secrets she took to her grave. What Tuscany finds are remnants of an extraordinary life along with clues to a cold case … an unsolved mystery. The ending left me wondering???

Okay so what is the coincidence between this book and my world …

At the time I was listening to this book, I was looking for a job in the Appalachian mountains. As I said, I randomly picked up this book and thought how cool it was that the setting was in the mountains. I had sent out email alerts to notify me of available library jobs near Sparta, NC. Sparta is my father's hometown. In fact my grandmother who recently passed away lived there and I wanted to find a job in the vicinity in order to buy her house. One afternoon I opened my email and found an alert for a county librarian's job in West Jefferson, NC at the Ashe County Public Library. This was only 28 miles away from my grandmother's house and I immediately began the process of applying for the position. While driving home that evening, anxious to tell my husband of the available job, I turned on the audio for Lee Smith's book. At that precise moment, Tuscany was going to the reading room at the Ashe County Public Library in West Jefferson, NC to research background on Molly Petree! It was like an omen! Several weeks later I received a telephone call from the Appalachian Regional Library Director to schedule an interview. What a coincidence it was when I learned her name was also Molly!

Now I have the job at Ashe Library and am living in my grandmother's old house! I visited the mountains many times growing up and have always wanted to live here. One of the most exciting things about this dream-come-true was the opportunity to meet Lee Smith. Ashe County Library has an annual literary festival every year and when I was hired, the festival was about to kick-off with a community read …. Lee Smith's collection of short stories Mrs.Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger. Lee is a charismatic speaker and I loved hearing about her background and how she develops her stories. After listening to her talk, I became inspired to write more myself. Funny how this all came to be … isn't it?
Profile Image for Jimmie.
22 reviews8 followers
May 18, 2014
Having been disappointed by my last read of Lee Smith, a friend and fellow Smith reader was quick to get this book into my hands to restore my pleasure in Smith's writing. It worked.

The character of Molly from her childhood through an unexpected (for the reader) and long life is one who proves herself to be "a spitfire and a burden...a refugee girl" as she describes herself. This remains true throughout. Her story is compelling, her voice is authentic, and the many surrounding characters are also finely drawn.

So also is the telling of the land, the culture, and the times. For example, while another character is describing the "pull" of the land which was once the State of Franklin (now parts of North Carolina and Tennessee), Smith writes, "This country suits me..It does not suit everyone...But it has gotten into my blood." In that same passage, Smith goes on to make a statement about "the people here fiercely individualistic, not to say cantankerous...Some of us, like to be lost. This is a different world, as you will see if you choose to stay."

The dialect is to be admired as she is able to suit each character and time period to the individual's speech and habits. I was so pleased to see "iffen" for the first time in my reading and equally pleased to have the custom of shivaree mentioned.

This was my first realization of Lee Smith's strength in using the young woman as the observer/narrator. I just had not realized how several of my favorites employ this device. Also, again there is the use of letters and diaries which originated early in Smith's work.

My favorites are in the ballads series, and I am delighted to have thoroughly enjoyed and added this book to my list of Lee Smith's great reads. Thanks, my friend!
Profile Image for LeAnna.
133 reviews
March 4, 2011
This was a fairly good book, though I felt the different places and people in them felt a little disconnected. That is, it felt almost like I was reading a different book in different places, despite the main character being in all of them. It spans the main character's life, and when she moves places, she is surrounded my completely new people, and each stage in her life is narrated by a different person, but it still didn't quite mesh together for me. Still, it was a good story. An interesting perspective on how Confederate Southerners suffered after the War. Probably the thing I liked the least is the lack of clarity in who committed a crime at the end of the book. Even the author, who intended it to be a particular person, confessed that many characters could have done it. (I'm being vague so as not to spoil anything). It is just such a big part of the book that I thought it should have been explained. I don't see the point of making that part foggy. It was actually kind of frustrating.
Profile Image for Rachel M.
173 reviews31 followers
May 9, 2010
I was captivated by the honesty of this little girl's narrative. I always love a story in which the characters have no pretenses - and the world she is trying to grow up in (Reconstruction-era South) is falling apart, one page at a time, one layer at a time, one person at a time, and she is making sense of it in the best way she can. I kept wondering what was ahead for her, and was always surprised. There is something both gruesome and fascinating about this book - it has a lingering sense of Miss Haversham about it.
6 reviews
July 11, 2013
On Agate Hill, by Lee Smith is a historical piece that follows the life of the orphaned Molly Petree. The reader first meets Molly in 1872 at the age of 13. She is living in her uncle’s house and has just begun to keep a journal, which is one of the forms that is used to tell her story. In fact, the whole novel is in the form of journal entries, letters and court documents.

With the epistolary style, a plot is not always easily identified, as is the case with this book. This style of writing generally leads itself to wonderful character portraits and allows one to gain a fuller knowledge and understanding of one or more characters. As Molly is the main character, all of the journal entries, etc… are either written by her or about her.

The story unfolds in four basic stages of Molly’s life. The first stage is Molly’s life on the Agate Hill Plantation, owned by her Uncle Junius. At this point in her life, Molly has lost a lot of people close to her. Both of her parents have died, as well as her aunt and a cousin and other cousins have grown up and moved out of the house. Her uncle’s sister comes to stay and brings her granddaughter, Mary White. Mary and Molly become close friends during their short time together and Molly faithfully writes to her throughout her life, even though she is not sure that Mary is still alive.

The second stage of the story takes place after Molly’s Uncle Junius dies. Simon Black, a former friend of Molly’s parents shows up shortly after Junius’ death and sends Molly off to boarding school in Virginia. At the Gatewood Academy, Molly blossoms and becomes the darling of her classmates and many of her teachers. The headmistress, Mariah Snow, however, is not impressed with Molly from the very first. Her distaste for her and her self-hatred are clearly evident in the journal that she keeps.

The next stage begins when Molly and Agnes leave the Gatewood Academy and take over a small school in the mountains of North Carolina. It is here that Molly gets her love story (she and Mary White were constantly making up love stories for each other on Agate Hill). Engaged to a prominent businessman from Salisbury, N.C., Molly runs off in the night with a man of questionable morals and characters. Jacky Jarvis is the only man for Molly and he and his family welcome her into their homes and their hearts.

Unfortunately, Molly’s and Jacky’s lives were filled with sorrow as one after another of their children either die at a very early age or are stillborn. Devastated by each loss, somehow Molly manages to find the strength the pull through each time, but each time it becomes more difficult for her. As the story of Molly begins to wind down, a major “plot-twist” is thrown in when the reader learns of the mysterious death of Jacky Jarvis and the trial of Molly Petree Jarvis for his murder.

The last stage of the story brings Molly back to Agate Hill and her guardian, Simon Black. Molly spends her last years in the place she knew as a young girl and in the company of Simon’s former servant and her own cousin, who was born shortly before Molly left Agate Hill to attend the Gatewood Academy.

The main themes in this heartwarming tale are those of loss and survival and of living one’s life to one’s own satisfaction, regardless of the opinions of others. Loss and survival are the most obvious themes, as they are present from the very beginning. Molly lost many family members through death prior to the beginning of the novel and even more before she went off to school. She lost her cousin Spencer, while she was at Gatewood and then she lost all of her children and finally her husband and then Simon Black. Death however was not the only form of loss for Molly. She also had to deal with the loss of close friends, as they were forced to move away or their life’s journey took them elsewhere. At her trial for Jacky’s murder, Molly commented in her journal later, that seeing the family there, she realized that even though they supported her, she no longer belonged with them.

In regards to the theme of living your life to your own satisfaction: as the reader learns more about Molly, they see that she often has opinions and tastes that tend to contradict what polite society would find acceptable. The best example of this is when she ran off and married Jacky Jarvis. She ignored the gossip and talk about him and followed her heart and never once regretted it.

Overall, I found this book to be a very enjoyable read. I usually find myself drawn to books that have strong, well defined characters and I was not disappointed with this one. I read it slowly, over a three month period (not due to lack of interest, but lack of time to read!) and this allowed Molly to linger in my thoughts and become someone that I felt I knew and I grew to care about what happened to her.
Profile Image for Catherine Read.
268 reviews22 followers
September 23, 2015
I have read all of Lee Smith's novels now and I love her work. Born and raised in Southwest Virginia and a graduate of Hollins, she captures the people and history of Appalachia so authentically. This is now among my favorite of her works along with Guests on Earth, Fair and Tender Ladies, The Last Girls, Dirty Linen and Oral History.

We follow Molly Petree from her girlhood following the Civil War in 1872 to her old age in the 1920s. It is at once a sweeping saga and a detailed very personal narrative shared through letters, diaries and testimonies from the perspective of various characters and Molly herself. These are pulled together by a modern day narrator, Tuscany Miller, who has come upon these artifacts and is writing to her professor to share them as a possible foundation for a thesis.

What I have always loved most about Smith's characters is how recognizable they are to me. She not only uses real places and historical events as the backdrop to her fiction, but she also chooses names that are indigenous to the region. The family names in these various regions of SWVA, West Virginia and North Carolina are so common there that they are familiar to me. That adds to the feeling that her characters once lived and breathed and moved about on this planet, living ordinary lives that are rich in the telling of them.

There is a theme of "love stories" throughout the book as Molly writes to Mary White throughout her life. One of the best lines of the entire book written in her old age is this: “Love lives not in places nor even bodies, but in the spaces between them.”

I was sorry to see the book come to a close as I could have spent more time with Molly Petree, Mary White, Uncle Junius, Agnes Rutherford, Mrs. Mariah Snow, Jackie Jarvis, Simon Black, Martha Fickling and Chatty Badger. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Holly Morey.
674 reviews3 followers
July 5, 2020
I have always been fascinated with the history and life in this part of the country and I was looking forward to reading this book for book club. I really liked the main character, Molly Petree. She was spunky and resilient and faced life head on. Unfortunately, to me it seemed that some parts of the book were over-written while others were incomplete. I prefer to read the "Ballad" series by Sharyn McCrumb. This series covers the same time period in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. I just felt that Lee Smith jumped around too much in the second half of the book, leaving parts of the story sketchy. I also felt that the beginning and end with Tuscany were unnecessary. I will be interested in the opinions of the other members of book club
Profile Image for Tien.
1,835 reviews69 followers
June 25, 2020
This was not an easy book to read. Firstly, I struggled to get into it because the first part is written by a young girl as diary entries and while the language suits the character, it made it hard to read. The next part was a little better as there are letters written by a teacher and the girl (being in boarding school, it made her writing easier to understand) but also heartbreaking due to diary entries by the headmistress. Up to this part, I thought that this sounded a bit like Jane Eyre (orphan sent to boarding school with a questionable reverend, etc) but set in North Carolina. While Jane Eyre ends with a possibility of happily ever after, we follow Molly Petree to the end of her life.

She found love and heartbreak. Her life was filled with music and then it was filled with silence. The readers were informed by letters, court transcripts (this was totally unexpected!), and diary entries. Life was tough in those times especially for a girl/woman who just wants to be herself.
Profile Image for Lilly.
66 reviews
September 15, 2017
Lee Smith's books are always beautiful and tragic. She has an amazing ability to describe the people of Appalachia and their singular connection to the landscape. On Agate Hill is heartbreaking, but enchanting as it follows the life of Molly from the decimation of her family in the Civil War to her old age in the early 1920's. Even in the historic setting, many readers can empathize with Molly, who attempts to blockade her heart after suffering so much. I won't spoil anything, but Molly's growth and development in the book is remarkable. Words fail me to encompass the lyrical beauty of her writing and Smith's ability to make tragedy seem poetic and enlightening.
Profile Image for Carol Eshaghy.
1,512 reviews18 followers
November 25, 2019
When a dusty box with diaries, news clippings, court records, songs, poems and other mementos is found in the ruins of a once prosperous plantation in North Carolina we learn about the life of Molly Petree from her birth until her death. Lee Smith’s family sagas are always tell a good story. I especially loved her novel FAIR AND TENDER LADIES, but all her stories are worth reading.
Profile Image for Cat Michaels.
Author 7 books307 followers
September 9, 2019
Can't help but love one of my fave North Carolina authors and her story tale set just up the road fro my home in the TarHeel state. Written epistolary style by its young protagonist from the mid-1800s, Smith injects humor and warmth into her story with letter-writing. How cool is that!
Profile Image for Alice.
786 reviews18 followers
July 11, 2013
Haunting, unforgettable, tragic. It's an epistolary novel comprised of Molly Petree's diary, and excerpts from other characters' diaries and letters, as well as newspaper clippings, songs, and court records.

When the book opens, 13-year-old Molly Petree is living on a plantation named Agate Hill under the protection of her legal guardian, Uncle Junius Hall.

The book spans 50 years of Molly's life. While she suffers many traumatic events, she always recovers, and you admire her strong heart even while you fear the consequences of her impulsiveness.

The depiction of life in the south after the Civil War was most striking. Society was completely disrupted, except for some of the very wealthy. Many people, like Molly's friends and relatives, lived in poverty, not knowing if they would have enough to eat, often being robbed of what little they did have.

All of the characters in the book were depicted well, even though their stories were told through diary entries and letters.

I gave the book four stars because I thought the narrator who finds the diaries, letters and other items that tell Molly's story was a twit. I was glad she was in the story only briefly. Also, the ending wasn't very clear.


Here's what the author, Lee Smith said about the ending to clarify it after someone on an Amazon forum emailed her to ask about it:

"Thank you for reading On Agate Hill. I think BJ did shoot Jacky, intending to murder him, because BJ had been secretly in love with Molly for years, and felt that Jacky was "doing her wrong" by being so unfaithful to her. (I had hoped that was clear in the way BJ worshipfully talked about Molly in his narration) Molly found Jacky mortally wounded at the store, then shot him herself in order to put him out of his misery. But then BJ lied to everybody, saying that she had not shot her husband, and thereby got her off at her trial. BJ thought that HE could be Molly's husband then, since she "owed" him, but as you read, this was not to be. Molly did not love him in that way. So she really had to leave, and she did.
Now, that was my intention, as I said... but as BJ said, there were a lot of people that had a motive to kill Jacky... such as, for instance, Icy. There was "a bullet out there waiting for him" all along, I guess.
Lee Smith "
Profile Image for Barb Terpstra.
426 reviews13 followers
October 21, 2011
I'm not entirely sure how to describe this book. I can tell you it kept me engaged all the way through. I think it may be one of the strangest books I've ever read.

We have the main character, Molly Petree who has lost everyone she loves - we follow her from her youth to adulthood. She is stubborn, angry, determined, solitary--she calls herself a ghost girl. For much of her young life she pretty much decides what she is going to do it, and then does it. Her running commentary on the other characters in the story gives us a picture of the circumstances that surround her. Molly ignores the adults who try to "gentle" her and pretty much runs wild. She likes it that way.

Then we have the mysterious Mr. Black, who seems ominous right the start and "rescues" her. Mr. Black sends her to school. The head mistress hates her and doesn't want her there, but Molly's benefactor (Mr. Black) donates enough money to keep the school going, so Molly stays. On the surface, Molly does get "tamed" but an unfortunate circumstance forces her to leave. She leaves with her friend Agnes to go teach school in the mountains where she is loved, and falls in love--something she swore she would never do.

The characters in the story are interesting. The setting (Asheville, NC) descriptions fit for the community the author describes. Southern novels just seem to have a different quality about them. Southern women and the communities they come from are always a little bit unbelievable, but the southern woman always survives. I like that about them.

This book has been on my book list for quite some time - I will be checking out more works by this author.
Profile Image for Shari Larsen.
436 reviews51 followers
September 13, 2011
This novel tells the story of Molly Petree, who is orphaned after the Civil War. Her tale is pieced together by diaries, journal entries, letters, poems, and court records. When the story opens, Molly is writing in her diary of her life at Agate Hill plantation; her legal guardian is her Uncle Junius, when Molly's Aunt Fanny dies, the housekeeper, Selena, schemes to marry Junius so she can inherit Agate Hill when he dies. Molly is neglected and mistreated under Selena's watch, until Simon Black, her late father's friend, becomes her benefactor and enrolls her in Gatewood Academy.

After graduating, Molly sets out to make a life for herself, one that is often filled with tragedy, but she is resilient, and determined to find some peace in life.

I really enjoyed this novel, and it was hard for me to put it down once I started reading it. I liked the style in which it was written, getting to know Molly and the other characters from different points of view. The author also painted an authentic picture of what life was like in the post Civil War era in the South, and the hard times that people from all walks of life had because of that war.
Profile Image for Susan.
94 reviews3 followers
November 11, 2009
I have to admit that my expectations were a bit high before I started reading. My ENG111 teacher spoke highly of this writer which prompted me to go to a workshop lecture by the author so I was psyched to read something by her. The writing style changes throughout the book as well as switching the first person character telling the story. If you can handle this I think you will enjoy the book. The main character is certainly interesting and goes through many trials yet makes it through them all albeit not unscathed. I would have liked to have a little more about what *really* happens and why, to here husband. With so much else explained in detail I felt that this major event was left hanging a bit. But I did enjoy reading it and it did keep me up past my bedtime several nights in the week it took me to read it. If you like settings in the old South you'll probably really like this one.
Profile Image for Julie H..
1,409 reviews22 followers
December 22, 2009
When I am semi-dreading reading something, I truly love to be proved wrong. Lee Smith's On Agate Hill has provided precisely one of those instances. It's my book group's selection for December and I just started it last night, thinking it will be a long slog through yet-another bit of Civil War fiction. Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong!

On Agate Hill is much more than just another epistolatory novel. It consists of two main parts: first, the correspondence between M.A. thesis writer wannabe Tuscany Miller and her erstwhile faculty advisor and, second, the assorted primary documents with which 19th-century protagonist Molly Petree's life is reconstructed. It's the second class of items that is broad in range and provides first-person and second-person glimpses into different chapters in Molly's life. I'm hooked and will likely finish the book in a second setting. In fact, I know just the person who will want this among her Christmas goodies.
Profile Image for J. Yandell.
Author 7 books14 followers
July 19, 2013
I liked this book, though the big jumps through time bothered me. I understand Smith using the diary and historical documents to tell the story, but big pieces of Molly's life seemed to be missing. It just FEELS wrong.

We are with her so intimately as a child, and through her schooling... but then the story begins to jump. All of sudden, Molly is taking off with Jackie, but we don't see how anyone reacts to this startling development — including her fiancee. Then, just as abruptly, Molly is on trial for murdering Jackie, with only the sketchiest information on their marriage.

And who in the hell shot Jackie anyway? If I want unresolved conflicts, I'll watch the news. I like fiction because it makes me feel like I can actually understand at least one small part of a life.

I suppose it bothers me because so much of the book is so richly detailed, it makes the other bits seem threadbare and stingy. As a writer myself, I wondered if Smith simply had to rush to finish the book.
75 reviews
July 15, 2009
I like Lee Smith's books. The first one of hers I read was Oral History. I think I just stumbled upon it wbile browsing in the library lo these many years ago. Since then I have read several of her books which always involve mountain or rural people in the South (NC, VA or WVa). Her plots aren't deep and her characters can be too good or too bad to be true, but in my opinion what Smith does best is draw pictures of the lives of the people in the times they are living. Agate Hill is set in post Civil War NC. Turns out the book wasn't what a new book group I have joined likes to read--perhaps not serious enough--but it fit my mood. I wanted an easy to read book about intersting times that went down like candy. This was it and if you want this kind of read, On Agate Hill will satisfy.
Profile Image for Mirah W.
826 reviews2 followers
July 29, 2011
This was my first novel by Lee Smith. It didn't move as quickly as I thought it would after reading the beginning but it was a very good book. Told from the different perspectives of the characters....through diary entries, letters, songs, etc. It was an interesting format and I liked getting the different perspectives. I thought the first half of the book moved slowly. Then things started moving quickly and a lot of time was covered during a character's testimony of some events. I felt that the characters in this section did not get the development that previously introduced characters did. I wanted to get to know Jacky better....I thought I had a good sense of him as a person but it wasn't that clear. I felt a sense of loss kind of permiated the entire book but in the end there is a feeling of contentment and satisfaction with life.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,894 reviews430 followers
June 10, 2012
This is an almost great book, but sadly, the ending glides to a lifeless stop that feels like an alternative ending, which doesn't work, or as if the author became ill and a ghost writer had to finish it. Still, it has great appeal in the characters and in the setting, North Carolina after the Civil War. It is a serious book about a realistic woman, from her childhood to the end of her adult life, and she is a woman who does not choose to walk an easier path, despite several opportunities to do so. As an entertainment, it is a good read. (It is not a Romance, though.) A lot of research was done by the author to add realism and in this she succeeds. It would have been far more satisfactory, though, if the wonderful spunky Molly was given a different, more adventurous life after the fire.
76 reviews11 followers
March 28, 2017
I rarely give 5 stars, but I loved this book. As a southerner myself, with lots of family in the mountainous region of NC, I recognized the dialect of storytelling in Lee Smith's beautiful style. This is how people talk, how they relate to each other. The beauty of everyday discourse. Smith has the gift of being descriptive without being tedious, which is a rare characteristic in an author. This book is long, but I read it in a few days, and finished wishing I had slowed down, taken it in more, but during the read, I couldn't. I flew through it wanting so much to know how it all came together. I loved Molly, I felt like I knew her personally. As a mother I pained for her as an orphan child and as a woman I related to her fierce passion and conviction. After I finished, I tossed and turned that night thinking of her trials, triumphs and the haunting nature of her story.

81 reviews
December 8, 2008
I am not one for reading stories about war, so I was skeptical when our book group selected this one that was presented as "about the Civil War." So I was presently surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I found it to be more a book about an individual and a family in the Civil War period. I liked how the book illustrated the impact of the war on individual's and families in the south, and transported you to an era and place with a fresh perspective. The book is filled with unusual characters that come together to form a family in different ways at different times in their lives in a way that I felt helped to balance the challenges of their circumstances. I would recommend this book.
17 reviews
March 13, 2021
Spoiler alert, sort of. I was between a three and a four but gave it three stars because even though I really did enjoy reading this book, stayed up late turning pages, I think it needed some editing. The opening and ending, the brief story of Tuscany is totally unrelated to Molly’s story and completely unnecessary. Why include it at all? Why do we need to know about her father? Her schooling? What does she have to with Molly? I’d initially thought somehow the two stories would be interwoven but that did not happen. It could easily have started when Molly receives the gift of a diary. I’d also have edited out the Brazil segment and just have let Simon Black be beholden to Charles . . . It’s otherwise a very engaging, interesting book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Ashley .
704 reviews2 followers
September 13, 2010
Hmmmm...I really liked the way this book was written. It's a diary, letters, a few things I can't say here because it would be spoilers. It's historical fiction--a story about the life of a 13 year old orphaned by the civil war. I had a hard time getting engaged with the characters an plot. I loved her teenage years, but didn't like before that or after as much. I had a few questions slash issues: 1. Why were some phrases underlined? 2. What 13 year old can write as eloquently as she does in the beginning? 3. If it was historical fiction, why wasn't more information about the era included? I liked this book, but it left me with a sad feeling.
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