On Agate Hill

On Agate Hill

by Lee Smith

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. If it was left up to me, I would read mainly books that have some sort of fantasy element, or historical fiction set in the middle ages. One period I would studiously avoid, and I’ve managed to do this pretty consistently, is the Civil War era, and the history of this country in general. Why? I don’t know. Maybe social studies in middle school beat any glimmer of interest out of me — they certainly went out of their way to make it an incomprehensible tasteless stew of Important Dates, Battles Of, and Acts and Doctrines. Fortunately, it’s not up to me, because I try to read at least the first couple of chapters of everything that comes across my desk (with the exception of things like Love’s Savage Fury, and man I get lots of those. If you love them, good on ya, but you don’t need my help picking them out.)

The last book I had some trepidation about was On Agate Hill, a novel set just after the Civil War. I gave an inward groan. Boooooring! Acts! Doctrines! Guess what, I was as wrong as a person can be. On Agate Hill is the story of orphaned Molly Petree, written in diary and letters. We meet Molly living as what she calls a ‘ghost girl’ in the ruins of once grand Agate Hill estate in North Carolina. Her experiences are those of a young girl; she doesn’t ride off to war, she doesn’t lead an army or declare Doctrines, but she stays alive and keeps what’s left of her family alive through conditions most of us 21st century folk never have to think about. Water, for instance. Running water. Just get a glass from the kitchen. But what if it’s the dead of winter and the well has frozen, and you have to get a bucket and drag it half a mile back and forth from the stream that runs through the woods. Now do that a couple of times a day. Plus your beloved uncle is dying of — I don’t know, consumption or something, and that trashy maid/possible hooker Selena has moved right in and she’s wearing your Dead Momma’s clothes. And who can Molly turn to? We see through her eyes that the structure of the world has broken down. There is no DCS, no welfare, no child protection. No protection for anyone, in fact. You know, like the way a lot of the world lives right now, today. (Okay, geez — Bono, my check is in the mail, already.)

Amidst all this trying to survive, you wouldn’t think Molly and her friends have much time for fun, but they have a rich fantasy life undiluted by TV, radio, movies, the Interwebby thing — all they have are books and their minds. Molly’s prized possession is the skeleton hand of a dead Yankee soldier. Kids.

Eventually Molly is rescued from the quickly deteriorating household by a relative and sent off to boarding school, where the well bred southern princesses waste no time turning up their noses, and Molly earns the scorn — through no fault of her own — of the marvelously deranged and perpetually pregnant headmistress, Mrs. Mariah Snow. The author’s use of letter and diary entrees works exceedingly well here, because unless we heard it straight from Mariah, we’d never believe what went on in her head.

We follow Molly’s adventures as she grows up and travels across the slowly healing southern states, getting in trouble, finding love, and finally finding a true home. I occasionally complain that a book is too short, and I have to make that case for On Agate Hill, because a couple of really interesting characters are introduced in the final chapters, and I wanted to know more about them. As I’ve said before, that’s not such a bad way to go out.

The careful research, the attention to period detail, and most particularly Molly’s honest and unself-pitying voice made On Agate Hill poignant, moving and NOT booooring. On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is On Agate Hill by Lee Smith.

I confess I usually avoid novels set in the Civil War south, but this one was captivating. The story of orphaned Molly Petree, living in the ruins of the once grand Agate Hill North Carolina, is told in Molly’s diaries and letters, and in the private journals and words of those who knew and loved or hated her. On Agate Hill follows Molly from her wild childhood in the crumbling estate to a rather snooty boarding school, and off to the mountains as she spends her life trying to find love and a real home. The use of diaries and journals rather than a regular narrative works extremely well, making the action immediate and vibrant. We don’t see the fighting or the big political picture, but in On Agate Hill we see how that war — any war — reaches beyond the battlefield. On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is On Agate Hill by Lee Smith.

If you are a fan of Civil War fiction, don’t hesitate to pick this book up. If you like carefully researched period pieces, and if you want something moving and very well written, also a good choice. The story of Molly Petree, an orphan living in the ruins of a once great estate, Molly grows up surrounded by the ghosts of her relatives and the wreck of her family. Her diaries and letters come first from the crumbling house, then from boarding school, and finally as a grown woman as she tries to figure out where she belongs and why her father’s old war friend is so interested in her. On Agate Hill also has the journals of a few other players in Molly’s life, most interestingly the unhinged schoolmistress Mrs. Snow. Now, there’s a great character. On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is On Agate Hill by Lee Smith.

Set just after the Civil War, and told entirely in diary and journals entries, this is the story of the bright, beautiful and reckless Molly Petree, an orphan with a big mind and no prospects living in the ruins of Agate Hill estate in North Carolina. Circumstances send her to boarding school where she earns the wrath of the deranged headmistress, Mrs. Mariah Snow, maybe my new favorite fictional crazy lady. In fact, there are lots of really interesting peripheral characters, some worthy of their own books.  On Agate Hill doesn’t take us onto the battlefield, but we can see how that war devastated the American South in a way I hadn’t really thought about before, I think because of the decision on the author’s part to use diaries; it gave it an immediacy and intimacy that stayed with me in a way a straight narrative wouldn’t. On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


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