Friday, April 24, 2009

On Agate Hill, by Lee Smith

I read an interview with Lee Smith in a writer's magazine last month, and was intrigued by her comments regarding On Agate Hill. So, I bought the book.The story is set in post-Civil War North Carolina. As readers of my book reviews know, I’m drawn to stories set in the Civil War period, particularly those set in the Confederate states. As someone who descended from a great-grandfather who fought for the Union, and who has lived her life on the west coast, I know very little of the effects of the war on the citizens of the southern states.

On Agate Hill is the story of Molly Petree, who is an orphan of thirteen when the book begins in 1872. Smith narrates Molly’s life through the use of diaries, letters, court records, and even sometimes song lyrics. It’s an unconventional method, but it serves this story well. By reading Molly’s words, and the words others write about her, the reader gets a fully dimensional view of an unforgettable heroine. The only drawback to this method of storytelling is the fact that when one of the sections ended, it created a natural place to stop reading and put the book down. But curiosity about what would happen to Molly next brought me back after those breaks.By the end of the story, I felt I had lost someone dear to me. Not a friend, exactly. More like an interesting relative who sends letters home telling of an exotic life beyond my imagining.

Molly’s life was far from exotic in the conventional sense. She never leaves North Carolina, but her life is ruled by her own definition of herself as a “bad girl.” Therefore, she doesn’t balk at challenging the status quo no matter where she finds herself. Smith has done a magnificent job of describing the beauty of North Carolina, especially the mountain areas. Her characters are all memorable—there aren’t any stick figures in this book.The privations of the reconstruction period following the Civil War are shown through Molly’s eyes in a way that makes them more real than melodramatic scenes could do.

On Agate Hill definitely falls in the category of literary fiction, and was written for the general market. Using movie ratings, I’d categorize it as PG-13. I recommend this book highly, especially for lovers of Civil War fiction.


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