Kirkus Reviews QR Code
ON AGATE HILL by Lee Smith Kirkus Star


by Lee Smith

Pub Date: Sept. 19th, 2006
ISBN: 1-56512-452-9
Publisher: Algonquin

The story of a self-described “ghost girl” who survives the Civil War devastation that claims her family is told in the North Carolina author’s rich, complex 12th novel (after The Last Girls, 2002).

Spirited orphan Molly Petree’s diary and correspondence describe her childhood at Agate Hill plantation, raised among the large extended family of her Uncle Junius Hall, a well-meaning patriarch too passive to resist tenant farmer’s widow Selena Vogell, who installs herself as housekeeper, marries him and emerges triumphant, as Agate Hill’s occupants disperse—among them adolescent Molly, claimed as the ward of her late father’s best friend and battlefield companion Simon Black. Molly’s student years at highfalutin’ Gatewood Academy are revealed through the diaries of its unstable headmistress Mariah Snow and her sensible sister, teacher Agnes Rutherford, who’ll accompany Molly on the next leg of her journey: to the one-room Bobcat School in the “Lost Province” of western North Carolina near the Tennessee border, where Molly seeks escape from Simon Black’s recurring reappearances by agreeing to marry a “rich boy” she doesn’t love. Fate then intervenes in the person of lusty country singer Jacky Jarvis, and, as his first cousin BJ discloses, Molly’s blissful union with Jacky endures despite a wrenching succession of stillborn children (their tiny graves “Just a row of rock babies up on the mountain like a little stone wall”), until he is murdered and Molly stands accused of the crime. Her story ends back on Agate Hill, once again in her diary’s words, as she nurses Simon Black during his last days, and finally learns the true nature of his claim on her. An authentic American saga, bittersweet as an Appalachian ballad, peopled with wonderfully vivid characters, so brilliantly constructed we never even notice the quilt-like artfulness of its design.

One of those books you can either roam contentedly around in for days, or devour at once, in a rush of pure pleasure. Take your pick.