'A Sense of Place': Smith Has Eye and Ear for Story
Tuscany Miller, seeking readmission to the doctoral studies program at fictional Carolina State University in Charlotte, reports to the head of its Southern studies institute that she has uncovered a treasure trove of materials from the post-Civil War era (1872-1927), most of it related to the life and adventures of a South Carolinian orphan and refugee, Molly Petree.
The materials uncovered are the stuff from which the talented Lee Smith constructs "On Agate Hill: A Novel" (a Shannon Ravenel Book from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 384 pp.). The book is another confirmation (her 10th novel) of Smith's acknowledged status as one of America's finest fiction writers, and certainly on any list of the top five Southern writers. I first met her in Tuscaloosa, Ala., some 40 years ago, and still marvel at her talent.
It may be an unfair comparison to make, but following the meandering path of the free-spirited but constantly besieged and tested lovely Molly is somewhat like reading a Southern version of "Anne of Green Gables."
Molly's father was killed at Bentonville in the last battle of the Civil War. Her mother had fled northward from their plantation, Perdido, near Columbia, S.C., when Sherman approached, and had died at Agate Hill, leaving Molly in the care of her first cousin, Junius Jefferson Hall and his wife, Fannie. Fannie has just died when Molly begins her journal.
The first section of the book comes from an old box of journals, letters, marbles, bones, and other "phenomena" found in Molly's special cubbyhole at Agate Hill when it was restored by Miller's father (re-named Ava after a sex operation, and his husband, Michael Oliver).
Over the course of her lifetime, Molly moves from place to place. Something awful seems to happen to every one of the several dozen people most linked to her growing up--murder, abandonment, abuse, strokes, mental illness, deformed births. Standing as the starkest of symbols near the novel's end is a row of gravestones on a hilltop, marking her many dead children that died in infancy.
But Molly herself is a survivor. She escapes molesting fingers of guardians and neighbors, gets educated in a Virginia boarding school, becomes an inspiring schoolteacher, is engaged to a textile magnate, runs away with a mountain banjo player, captures the hearts of a whole wary mountain community up on the Tennessee line in North Carolina, is tried for murdering her husband, and all the time is watched over from a distance by the mysterious black-clad Simon Black, who fought beside her father in the War. Eventually, she winds her way back to the decaying Agate Hill.
Molly says that she is always wanting something, although it not anything material -- she is seemingly content when she is reduced to shabby clothes and corn pone. What she wants is never quite clear -- but her love for her husband comes close to it. Maybe she wants the freedom and independence she wrests from hard times, year by year, place by place, misfortune by misfortune. Maybe she wants roots, peacefulness and communion with her fallen family and friends and neighbors. Her seeking is what makes her one of fiction's memorable women.
Smith has this incredible ability in all her writings to capture and combine strong sense of place, pithy but clearly-defined characters (a special strength), and intriguing plot -- all laced with unobtrusive but meaningful literary allusions. Hers is an eye to be envied and a voice to be heard.
The book is dedicated to her son, Joshua Field Seay, who died in 2003 at age 33. If this book was written afterward, that may be a clue to Smith's acute sensitivity to the interplay of the human spirit with the grief and tragedies of life.
Many of the fascinating people in "On Agate Hill" cannot endure life's storms, much less survive them, but the Molly Petrees -- and Lee Smiths -- can and do (a joy and inspiration to us all).
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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