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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Following her 2001 Southern Book Critics Circle award–winning novel, The Last Girls, Smith's 10th novel chronicles the post–Civil War life of a precocious Southern orphan using a slapdash patchwork of journal entries, letters, poems, recipes, songs, catechism and court records. Molly Petree, the daughter of a slain Confederate soldier, begins a diary on her 13th birthday in May 1872, near Hillsborough, N.C., at Agate Hill, the plantation of her legal guardian, Uncle Junius Hall. Seeing herself as "a ghost girl wafting through this ghost house," Molly falls under the spiteful devices of Selena, the scheming housekeeper, who marries a terminally ill Junius to inherit the plantation. Under Selena's watch, Molly is neglected, mistreated and raped before Simon Black, who fought alongside Molly's father, rescues her and enrolls her in the Gatewood Academy, where she becomes "an educated, fancy woman." After graduating, Molly marries sweet-talking Jacky, but tragedy dogs her: Jacky dies a particularly miserable death, their baby dies and when Molly returns to Agate Hill, she finds it in ruins. Molly's story is moving, but Smith's structure—the narrative's pieces are the contents of "a box of old stuff" found during Agate Hill's renovation—is needlessly contrived. (Sept. 19)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

This ever-popular novelist, author of, most recently, The Last Girls(2002), now turns to an increasingly popular genre, historical fiction, and does so with a bang. The time period that Lee knowledgably sets this involving novel within encompasses the years between the end of the Civil War and the dawn of the twentieth century; her setting is North Carolina. The novel's conceit is not particularly original--it is purportedly composed of real documents, such as diary entries, letters, and court documents--but Lee nevertheless fashions, in gradual steps through time and from the telling perspectives of different individuals, the riveting character Molly Petree. She is an orphan at war's end, dependent on being taken in by family, but she isn't the type to stay at the mercy of anyone. Her pluck, fortitude, resilience, and wisdom prompt her not only to take things as they come during this disorderly time in the South but also to dictate her own fortune and make a life in which she can find some peace. This novel of treachery and resolution provides an intimate picture of the Reconstruction era, observed through the lens not of politicians and generals but of the common folk upon whose shoulders the actual reconstruction of a ravaged land rested. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: A Shannon Ravenel Book (August 28, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565125770
  • ASIN: B001CJS668
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,314,208 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 56 people found the following review helpful By H. F. Corbin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Lee Smith's latest novel, ON AGATE HILL, covers 50 years or so-- 1872 to 1927-- of the life of one Molly Petree, who is orphaned as a youngster, is taken in by relatives on a run-down plantation on Agate Hill in North Carolina, goes away to school for young girls called Gatewood Academy, teaches in a one-room school in the North Carolina mountains and ultimately marries a wild banjo picker. The tale unfolds through diaries and letters that Tuscany Miller in the present has gotten hold of from her former father Wayne, who because of modern medical technology is now Ava, and her husband Michael. They (Michael and Ava) found a box full of diaries, songs, poems, etc., when they purchased Agate Hill to turn into a bed and breakfast.

As always, Ms. Smith writes with delightful humor. Tuscany, who has renamed herself in high school, had decided not to do a thesis on "Beauty Shop Culture in the South: Big Hair and Community." The sexually repressed Mariah Snow endures the marriage bed by reciting in her head portions of Milton's "Paradise Lost." There are beautiful passages as well, for instance, when the young Molly's uncle asks her if she came to help him with the sunrise. Ms. Smith also has perfect pitch when it comes to dialogue and common sayings from the Appalachian Mountains: "Cat got your tongue?" A character is "old as the hills." Another is "tickled." Farmers raise "banty roosters." Children are "younguns." And finally the strange construction that I hear sometimes in these parts, "I taken."

In spite of all the frivolity here, this novel can be as serious and sad as a country burying. The period immediately after the Civil War was hard for everyone, black and white folks alike. Some children lost parents in the war; others died in infancy. Ms.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on February 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This award-winning author's novel of the post-Civil War south succeeds because - and in spite of - its iconic plot devices and choppy plot construction.

The bundle of old diaries, letters and other documents that tell the story of Molly Petree's life have been collected in the present day by the self-named Tuscany Miller, a funny, sassy example of modern southern womanhood. A beauty pageant veteran whose father has recently undergone a sex-change operation and remarried as Ava, Tuscany wants to return to college and proposes to use the documents to design a new thesis.

We meet Molly, an orphan, in 1872 on her 13th birthday. She has lost not only her parents but her four siblings as well. Two of her brothers and her father were killed in battle and childbirth took care of the rest, including her beloved aunt, mistress of Agate Hill. "I live in a house of ghosts," writes Molly in her new diary. The diary ends the day she is rescued from neglect and rape by a brooding mysterious benefactor and sent to a girls' boarding school.

From this point on, we view Molly mostly through others' eyes, with two exceptions. The first is Molly's letters to an invalid friend, which continue throughout her life, despite the early cessation of replies, and the last is an appendage to her diary after years of tumult, tragedy and striving.

Other views include that of Mariah, the dour, repressed headmistress who hates her (Molly has caught her creepy husband's eye), and Agnes, Mariah's sweet, spinster sister, a teacher at the Academy and a good friend to Molly.

The first section of the book is the strongest. Molly's young, grieving, bewildered voice is nonetheless strong and full of life in the aftermath of devastating war.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By lochnessa7 on January 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I had mixed feelings reading this book. The opening, as a collection of letters and diaries introduced by a young amateur historian, is clever and the historian is charming, but it delays the reader from getting into the actual story. And the story does take some getting into. I don't like to abandon a book once I've started it, but On Agate Hill took some work.

The first part, the diary of young Molly Petree, was the hardest part of the book for me. I'm a big fan of Southern Gothic, but her meandering childhood on her uncle's decaying plantation was unfocused, with too much time spent in day-to-day descriptions while the cataclysmic events that alter her character and destiny are rushed and unexplained.

The latter half of the book gets better. Molly's school days are described through the eyes of a bizarrely creepy headmistress and feels reminiscent of Jane Eyre and A Little Princess. Her time spent teaching in the mountains is charming, and her discovery of love and romance feels genuine. The tragedies that beset her later life are moving and almost made me cry. But the final "mystery" of Molly's mysterious benefactor is remarkably anticlimactic, and the overall patchiness of the story never really gels. Each individual section, except the beginning, makes an interesting anecdote, but overall On Agate Hill never becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By John C. Wiegard VINE VOICE on September 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Like most of Lee Smith's novels, this is excellent. It reminded me of "Jane Eyre", the classic British novel about an orphan girl who faces tremendous challenges in her life. It may also remind you of "Gone with the Wind", with the post-Civil War setting (except that the Ku Klux Klan in this story have no redeeming qualities at all- which is more accurate), and the amount of suffering experienced by the heroine. The first part of the story, Molly Petree's childhood, is really the best- it is haunting. The rest of it is nearly as good. At one point Molly writes "I gave it my whole heart. I would do it again." That also describes how I feel about this book. Smith clearly did a great job with her research to make this story feel so real.
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