It's been years and years since I last read a book by Lee Smith. I think I read through everything she wrote about a decade ago and never got back to reading her new stuff. I loved On Agate Hill. I was actually interrupted mid-book because I needed to read a different book for book club, but I found that I could easily get back into the story even after 3 weeks away.
Smith is a wonderful storyteller, weaving the poverty of Appalachia in with the lost splendor of the pre-Civil War South. In this novel, the story of Molly Petree, a war orphan, is told through her journals and letters. Molly is a wonderful, memorable character. She loves deeply and searches for family wherever she can, from Agate Hill to boarding school to the hills of Appalachia, trying to replace the ghosts from her life. I especially loved the last section, when Molly is an old woman. It's all beautifully told.
On a side note, I liked the journals and letters, but there was a weird outside story that didn't work for me. The box of writing was found by a graduate student, who plans to use it for her dissertation. I understand that the graduate student was supposed to symbolize today's southern woman, but I found it to be an annoying distraction. I didn't want Tuscany-the-graduate-student from today's dysfunctional family mingling with Molly Petree's life.
Still, the book is fantastic. I could easily brush aside the occasional interruptions of the graduate student's voice because it is just a tiny part of the novel. I think Lee Smith is one of the South's best voices.
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