Friday, October 24, 2008

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

I reluctantly finished On Agate Hill last night. I initially got a slow start with the book, but that had nothing to do with the book itself. It was simply me being stressed and in a weird mood. The book is written as a series of diary entries with a few poems, letters and other documents scattered throughout. I usually like this style because you get inside the character's head. You know what they're thinking and feeling at all times. Interestingly enough however, in this case, that doesn't mean that I understood everything that was going on. I still have questions about certain things now. I guess that is truly the mark of a good writer. Smith uses this straight-forward form but still manages to make the reader think and interpret the action and motives of the characters.

The basic story is that of Molly Petree who is orphaned by the American Civil War. We learn about Molly's life with her Aunt and Uncle following the death of her family through her diary entries. From the beginning, you realize that she's ahead of her time. She isn't interested in the things that most little girls of the period are interested in. She has a burning desire to learn and travel and see the world. She wants to experience everything that she can. Unfortunately, she's stuck on a remote plantation, which has seen better days. Molly must face more adversity as things continue to go from bad to worse.

The next section of the book deals with Molly's life after she ends up in a boarding school due to the generosity of her benefactor, Simon Black who suddenly appears at Agate Hill one day. He was a childhood friend of her parents who promised her dying father that he would look after her. Molly seems to thrive at the school making friends and taking advantage of the opportunity to learn all that she can. Following an event reminiscent of something that happened to her as a child, she leaves the school and begins teaching in a remote mountain school. She has had no shortage of male attention throughout her life; however, she has never had an interest in a serious relationship. Things change when she meets Jacky Jarvis. Will she marry this reckless man or accept the proposal of the more steady Henderson Hanes who can finally offer her the one thing she has never had -- security. The rest of the book deals with her life after she marries. She goes through a great deal as a wife and mother, but through it all she remains strong and proud.

There is a great deal more that could be said about this book, but I don't want to give too much away. It is very well-written and thought-provoking. I still have a few questions in my mind regarding Simon Black and something that happens to Molly's husband. I think I'll head over to LibraryThing and see if I can join in a discussion about this one. I really can't recommend this one enough.

8 comments:

Tara said...

I've been curious about this one. I'm glad you liked it. I'll keep my eye out for it.

Lisa said...

tara, it was really good. A nice mix of historical fiction/southern literature with a strong female protagonist. What's not to like right?

Nymeth said...

Like you told tara, what's not to like indeed! Thanks for the review, Lisa. This sounds like a great book.

Lisa said...

nymeth, I hope you like it if you read it. I only had one tiny thing that I could have done without. It's really very small, which is why I didn't say anything about it in the review. The book is framed with letters from the present in which a graduate student has found Molly's box with diary, letters, etc. I don't think this really added to the story at all. But, like I said I really enjoyed it.

Danielle said...

I love books that you like so much that you don't want to finish them--and I love epistolary form, too. I will have to see if my library has this one--it does sound good.

Lisa said...

danielle, epistolary form is great when done well, and Smith nailed it with this book. Hopefully, your library will have a copy. I'm not sure how well known Smith is outside of the U.S. South.

Gwendolyn said...

I love Lee Smith, but I haven't read this one yet. Glad to know you think it's wonderful - I'll make a point to pick it up.

Lisa said...

gwendolyn, if you like Lee Smith, I'm pretty sure you'll like this one. I really enjoyed it.