Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

Dear Diary, This book belongs to me Molly Petree age thirteen today May 20 in the year of our Lord 1872, Agate Hill, North Carolina. I am an orphan girl. This is my own book of my own self given to me by the preachers wife Nora Gwyn who said, This little diary is for you my dear unfortunate child, to be your friend and confi dent, to share all your thoughts and deepest secrets for I know how much you need a friend and also how much you love to read and write. I do believe you have a natural gift for it. Now it is my special hope that you will set down upon these pages your own memories of your lovely mother and your brave father, and of your three brothers as well, and of all that has befallen you. For I believe this endeavor might help you, Molly Petree. So I urge you to take pen in hand commencing your diary with these words, Thy will be done O Lord on Earth as it is in Heaven, Amen. Well, I have not done this! And I will not do it either no matter how much I love pretty Nora Gwyn who looks like a lady on a fancy plate and has taught me such few lessons as I have had since Aunt Fannie died. NO for I mean to write in secrecy and stelth the truth as I see it. I know I am a spitfire and a burden. I do not care. My family is a dead family, and this is not my home, for I am a refugee girl.

So begins On Agate Hill by Lee Smith, a collection of fictional diaries, letters and court documents that take the reader from a plantation and a girl's boarding school during Reconstruction, to an Appalachian one-room schoolhouse, to finally the Confederados of Brazil who fled the South after the Civil War. These documents are all discovered at Agate Hill, now a B & B run by the transgendered father of Tuscany Miller, former beauty pageant contestant and would-be graduate student of documentary studies. To fully enjoy the book, don't let its piecemeal (others would say "patchwork quilt") quality bother you - give yourself over to the distinctive voices of the writers of the letters and diaries.

The evening book group is reading On Agate Hill for its discussion on November 9. ReadingGroupGuides.com has published the book's discussion questions. You can listen to an interview Smith had with North Carolina Public Radio WUNC here. Lee Smith writes on her web site about how she was inspired to write On Agate Hill. There are links to reviews on her On Agate Hill page too. Blackbird, an online literary journal out of Virginia Commonwealth University, has a good article about the multiplicity of speakers in Lee Smith's novels.

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