Latest book from a favorite North Carolina writer

by DG Martin

We’ve waited almost five years for a new book from favorite North Carolina storyteller Lee Smith.

Her book, On Agate Hill, is the second new book of three by prominent North Carolina writers that are set in and around Civil War times and are similar in other respects.

The first, David Payne’s Back to Wando Passo, was released a few months ago. The third, Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons, comes out next month.

All three of the new books are epic in scale with multiple stories featuring larger-than-life characters. Carefully researched, they take their readers back into the hard and sometimes very cruel times of our region in the 1800s. Each deals boldly with intimate relations between characters of different races. Each requires the patient attention of its readers, and each book gives richly in return.

Smith’s On Agate Hill is arriving in the bookstores this week.

The novel is the story of the life of Molly Petree, a Civil War orphan, told primarily through her diary, which she began as a 13-year-old in 1872 and continued, with some breaks, until her death in 1927. Her diary is supplemented by letters to and from other characters, their writings, court records and even a mountain ballad.

Molly’s father was killed in the Battle of Bentonville, NC, the last massive contest of the Civil War. Molly and her mother moved to Agate Hill near Hillsborough, where her uncle and aunt lived. After her mother and her aunt die, Molly learns to make her own way, dealing with the challenges of an exploitive step-aunt and with other complexities of life in the post Civil War South.

Her diary begins, “‘…I mean to write in secrecy and stelth the truth as I see it’…. My family is a dead family, and this is not my home, for I am a refugee girl’… I will write it all down every true thing in black and white upon the page, for evil or good it is my own true life and I will have it. I will.”

Molly’s tenacious spirit, her curiosity, and her will to succeed quickly win the reader’s sympathy.

When the challenges of life on Agate Hill seem too great to bear, she is mysteriously rescued and sent to a girls’ boarding school where she faces a different set of challenges. The headmistress dislikes her, and the headmistress’s preacher husband attraction to Molly adds extra complications. Nevertheless, she makes friends with the other girls and learns her lessons well enough to get her own job as a teacher in the mountains of North Carolina.

Soon she is engaged to marry a wealthy, but otherwise worthless, man from Salisbury. But before the marriage, at a mountain dance she sees one of the musicians who, as she describes him, “was tall and skinny with yellow-red hair that fell forward into his eyes and a big nose and a wide crooked reckless grin, the kind of a face that you couldn’t quit looking at’…. He was the kind of man that made everybody feel better just because he had walked into the room.”

His first words to Molly were, “My name is Jackey Jarvis and I’ve been looking for you all my life.”

Molly did not marry the Salisbury man, and you can guess the rest of the story, can’t you?

No. Thank goodness. The rest of Molly’s story goes on for a lifetime and there are lots of surprises that help make this novel a book that was worth waiting for.

But a pleasure even greater than discovering the story of Molly’s life is the experience of reading Smith’s descriptions of her characters and the places where they found themselves. Read this one example from the time Molly and Jackey were first alone together in the mountains of Ashe County.

“But now the sky had turned dark. The light all around us was a pale, sickly green. A long deep roll of thunder, like a growl, came crawling across the sky, soon followed by a jagged bolt of lightning back up at the tree line not far away.”

Read it for the story. Read it for Smith’s way with words. But read it.