On Agate Hill

Nov 13, 2006

There are twelve novels and three volumes of stories by Lee Smith, and On Agate Hill marks a new turning. After several novels inspired by the culture around her, Smith has written her first genuinely historical novel.

The literary career of Lee Smith, a native of Grundy, Virginia, can now be seen in stages. Her first book, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed (1968), written while she was a senior at Hollins College, and her second, Something in the Wind (1971), were both somewhat autobiographical. Smith recalls that she was more or less at a standstill when, as a reporter for the Tuscaloosa News, she was assigned to cover a summer cheerleading camp. There she found fresh material aplenty and that, combined with the Tuscaloosa Chamber of Commerce sesquicentennial celebration planning meetings, resulted in the novel Fancy Strut (1973).

Now there are twelve novels and three volumes of stories, and On Agate Hill marks a new turning. After several novels inspired by the culture around her, Smith has written her first genuinely historical novel. Smith and her husband, Hal Crowther, bought an old home in Hillsborough, NC, a house replete with stories, legends, even ghosts. This set Smith to ruminating on history and who usually writes it. In war, of course, the answer is the winners, but even under ordinary circumstances it is the literate, the elite, who get to tell their stories.

On Agate Hill proposes a different premise. In preparing to write this novel, Smith did a prodigious amount of reading in late-nineteenth-century diaries and local histories.

As a framing device for this novel, a shallow college girl, Tuscany Miller (she chose the name Tuscany herself), has discovered in an attic a box of Reconstruction-era writings, and wishes to submit them in lieu of a research paper, to an American Studies course. (I find this totally believable.) The largest part of this novel is the papers in that box. There are letters, transcripts of a murder trial, song lyrics, and, most importantly, volumes of a diary by the protagonist of On Agate Hill, Molly Petree.

Molly is an orphan, and a self-described refugee. This novel is set during Reconstruction in North Carolina, and a lot of the population is on the move. Ex-slaves are heading north or just to somewhere else. Families in foreclosure or bankruptcy are looking for a new place to live. And, of course, the sick, the amputees, and the orphans are trying to find somewhere to survive. Molly finds a kind of a home with cousins at their ruined plantation, called Agate Hill. She is thirteen, in 1872, when she begins keeping the diary that will be the bulk of this novel.

Smith has the same challenge here as Alice Walker had with Celie's letters to God in The Color Purple. Molly starts out fairly na?ve and semi-literate. She is, however, a relentless and astute observer. In fact, she has a secret cubbyhole with a peephole through which to observe, unobserved. The grownups around her, on whom she must depend completely, are increasingly stressed and deeply flawed.

As Molly matures, she understands the fear, desperation, lust, and greed around her better and better, but her situation grows worse as post?Civil War society crumbles. The cousins grow poorer, and Molly becomes the victim of neglect, abuse, and assault.

She is rescued from these dangers by a mysterious benefactor, Simon Black, an ex-Confederate who made his fortune among the Conferados of Brazil and who will remind readers of Magwitch in Dickens' Great Expectations. Molly is plucked from Agate Hill and sent to a boarding and finishing school, and life takes a new direction.

Molly's diary runs until the year 1927 and so there are, of course, many more episodes and adventures. She loves, marries, bears children, is arrested for murder, and finally comes into a safe harbor. Smith modulates Molly's voice throughout, as her heroine moves from a lonely and unhappy girl to an older, wiser, and, finally, calm woman. She has come through.