On Agate Hill

Written by Lee Smith
Review by Jane Kessler

Lee Smith is a talented novelist who has written an absorbing novel of the post-Civil War South. Molly Petree is an orphan living on her uncle’s North Carolina plantation on Agate Hill. Molly’s parents, brothers, and aunt have all died, and her uncle is emotionally shattered by the war and the loss of his wife and children. Molly, too, is saddened by the death of her family, but still manages to find joy in the beautiful countryside.

Molly’s situation becomes precarious when her uncle dies, leaving her in the care of Selena, the tenant farmer’s widow, whom her uncle married shortly before dying. She acquires a protector in the mysterious Simon Black, a devoted friend of her parents, who arranges for her to go to a boarding school. As Molly grows up, her life continues to be marked by tragedy. She seems destined to lose everyone she loves, but through all this, Molly endures, and in the end, returns to Agate Hill.

In beautifully written prose, Smith writes about the survival of the human spirit in the midst of heartbreaking tragedy. She has done meticulous research, basing much of the book on memoirs and diaries. This is reflected in the vividness with which this time and place is depicted: the daily life and activities, the description of the countryside and the mood of the people. Not to be missed.