On Agate Hill, Lee Smith

A book I acquired in spite of my firm and as-yet-unbroken book-buying ban.  My lovely grandmother (my mum’s mum) sent it to me, all shiny and beautiful and hardback, along with an equally shiny and beautiful and hardback book about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots not liking each other (I am excited about this as it has been quite some time since I read anything about the Tudors).  My grandmother loves to read.  She inherited booklust from her father, my great-grandfather, who loved Rafael Sabatini and who gave a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my grandmother when she turned eight, which has now been passed on to me and I keep it on the special shelf in my bedroom where I keep my most excellent books.

But this is neither here nor there.  I am just feeling sentimental today about how good my family is – very very good, for the interested – extremely large also, I have more first cousins than Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Roman Catholics FTW.

On Agate Hill is all about a girl called Molly Petree, born on a ruined plantation in North Carolina, where, she says, “I live in a house of ghosts.”  She lives on this plantation, at the mercy of the adults that come and go in her life, until an old friend of her parents’ comes to take her away, to be educated as a lady in a posh school; this doesn’t really take, and she carries on living her wild life and trying to find the things that she wants.  “I am not a lady,” she says, “and now that I have gone through the fire, I believe I can do whatever I want.”

I like On Agate Hill because it is epistolary, and it has different narrators – the idea being that the documents were all found in an old house and given to a history student, and she is sending them on to her professor.  I thought the beginning bits, on the plantation, went on just a smidge too long, but I loved the middle section when she was at school.  This part of the story is told in letters she writes to her friend Mary White, and in diary extracts by her headmistress, a woman who sees in Molly all the freedom that she won’t allow herself, and resents her bitterly for it.  And then later on Molly writes about her impulsive, passionate marriage, and how it ends in tragedy.  All v. fascinating.

Although I do not usually like Southern novels, I became completely absorbed in this one, and I kept putting it down to do other things, and then picking it back up five minutes later because I wanted to know what would happen.  A lot of bad things, it turns out, but it’s okay, because the book is imbued with Molly’s indomitable nature, and whatever happens, you get the feeling Molly will manage it.  She’s a delightful character – a woman of her times, but also a woman of her own making.

Bits I liked:

Later in camp he will write a poem named The Tented Field which will be printed in newspapers all over the country including the Edgefield Examiner then clipped and folded and carefully saved in Mammas lavender silk purse along with those other clippings I have here now in my collection of phenomena.  Papa will be shot through the ear at Pocataligo, wounded in the leg by a minie ball at Hawes Shop, and finally killed at Bentonville where he will be blown to smithereens by a bursting shell then gathered up in pieces and buried beneath a green willow tree as in a ballad.  He would have liked that, Uncle Junius said.  Bloody symbolic fool.

And this, from Molly’s headmistress at the school she attends, is one of the character’s earliest diary entries, and I just thought it captured her so well, and made her strong dislike for Molly sad, rather than detestable.  I think I liked this so much because you have a lot of Evil Headmistresses in literature, but anyway here it is:

But he did not release  [my arm], pulling me toward him & into the house where to my surprise he exercised his Conjugal Rights upon the hall bench in broad daylight.  He seems to be quite worked up, in general, by all that has transpired.  I occupied myself by reciting the beginning of Paradise Lost all the while, finishing about the same time he did….I am locked in a golden chest, I am bound round & round by a silken rope.  Simon Black should not trust me.  Nobody should trust me!  For I am filled with the most base & contradictory impulses, no matter how I struggle to be worthy of God’s love, & do His bidding in this world, & live up to my Responsibilities.

I am glad I am born now.  And not during the Civil War or Reconstruction or even World War II.  And here is what other people thought of this book:

A Life in Books
Booknotes by Lisa
The Magic Lasso

Let me know if I missed yours!

  • I love the bit about your gma and her father! How wonderful to have that original book – high and worthy sentimental value indeed – I love this kind of stuff.

    And, I read ALL the reviews you point to and am impressed how each adds to my wanting to read this book and yet I haven’t had it spoiled, either (I like to know as little as possible.)

    Thank you!

    • It is wonderful to have – he wrote in it “to [my grandmother] from Daddy on her eighth birthday – may she always be the happy little girl that she is today”. My great-grandfather sounds amazing, and I never got to meet him. I was so thrilled when my grandmother gave me the book.

      I hope you like On Agate Hill. If you get a little bogged down in the first part, do keep going, because it clears up right as soon as she leaves the plantation, and becomes totally worth the slightly-too-slow beginning. (For me it did anyway…)

  • I am so glad to be living now, too. I know the way things are now is far from perfect, but still, I wouldn’t want to be living even fifty years ago. Also, book added to wishlist.

    • And now I’ve just read The Handmaid’s Tale and am grateful not to be living in the future. 😛

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