Vulcan’s Peak

Book log: On Agate Hill

August 11, 2009 6:11 pm

OnAgateHill Here’s one of my crazy ideas about books. Some books grab you by the throat and say “Read me NOW!” But other books simply eye you and say, “I would be the perfect read for June.” Or October. Or January.

January — that was Bleak House, although it wasn’t wholly accurate. Lots of the book takes place in summer, on sunny country estates. But then, Arizona Januarys aren’t known for being dark or frigid, and at any rate, Dickens can be counted on to plunge back into the London fog sooner or later.

On Agate Hill gave me a lazy glance and said “August.” I can’t really explain why, to be honest.

Regardless, it’s August now, and the book is fantastic. If you like Civil War-era history, or historical fiction about strong women, or stories told in letters and diary entries, I recommend On Agate Hill.

The book follows the life of Molly Petree, an observant, stubborn, spitfire kind of woman. We meet her as an orphan living on a dying plantation in the middle of Reconstruction. In her young memory, as many of the estate’s inhabitants have died or left Agate Hill as are still living there, and, feeling that she doesn’t really belong anywhere in the picture, she thinks of herself as a sort of ghost, too.

One of the things that comes across in Molly’s diary of this period is how severely the old social system of the South has gotten shaken up. It isn’t something she talks about directly, it’s there all the same. As one example, the marriage of convenience between a working class tenant woman and her Uncle Junius, who owns the plantation, is developed at length and illustrates the point nicely.

When she gets a little older, Molly becomes determined not to be a ghost during her own lifetime, an idea that she carries for the rest of the book. She remains vibrant, a force for life, despite the prevalence of death throughout the book.

Lee Smith is an author I hadn’t been familiar with, but she’s one I’ll look for in future. Her writing is beautiful, and none of her handful of narrators could possibly be mistaken for any of the others. That always impresses me.

Her neatest trick, though, is to present the story as found history, and she’s very deliberate about including only documents that can be accounted for through her frame story. It’s very minimal, as frame stories go, only a handful of short letters, but they account for everything else.

Except, that is, for when they don’t: Lee Smith deliberately leaves holes. What ever happened to Mary White? What darkness lurked in Mariah Snow’s past? What did she write on the page she tore out of her journal? What happened to the Snow children, and who shot the first bullet? The reader learns enough to make guesses, but as with real historical records, some things can’t be proved. Perhaps we don’t have any more letters from Mary White because she died, but perhaps those letters just weren’t saved, or burnt up in the fire, or perhaps, they’re waiting: still hidden in someone’s attic.

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