Monday, November 29, 2010

185 (2010 #50). On Agate Hill

by Lee Smith,
read by Danielle Ferland, Kate Forbes, Katie Firth, Linda Stephens, Ed Sala, and Tom Stechschulte

This book was the November selection for my local book club.  It's historical fiction, set in the South, covering a post-Civil War period running from May 1872 to July 1927.  The book centers on Molly Petree, an orphan who is thirteen years old when the book begins.  Much of the story is told from Molly's viewpoint, in the form of her diary and letters she writes to a childhood friend, Mary White.  Other narrators of Molly's story include a favorite teacher, Agnes Rutherford; Agnes' sister, the mean schoolmistress Mariah Snow; B.J. Jarvis, Molly's husband's cousin; and Simon Black, Molly's benefactor.  Most of these also speak through letters and journal entries, but B.J.'s tale is told in court testimony.

Tying these narrators together is a 2006 ditzy student named Tuscany Miller, who has supposedly found these documents at Agate Hill plantation, which her (weird) family has purchased to turn into a bed-and-breakfast.  Tuscany is hoping that turning in all the stuff she finds will satisfy her "documentary studies program" thesis requirements.  As if.  This stupid storyline is thankfully brief and completely unnecessary.

Molly's story is interesting for the glimpses it gives into life in the South in the mid-1870s on a struggling plantation in North Carolina and at an all-girls school in Virginia, as well as in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the years following, and ultimately back to the ruined plantation in the early 1900s. Smith's acknowledgments at the end of the book list an impressive bibliography and other readings.

Unfortunately, I did not find Molly or most of the people around her to be particularly likable characters (the exception being Agnes).  There was too much unnecessary detail about her childhood (and not enough about the events of that time that really mattered), and I found the premise of a thirteen-year-old recording such detail in a diary to be unrealistic.  I had a hard time getting through this first third of the book.

The book gets a little better after that, although Mariah's actions are puzzling, and Molly makes a number of poor choices and is beset with tragedy.  If I'd had to read the book in print, I'm not sure I would have been able to finish it.  The audiobook made it much easier, with six voices:  Danielle Ferland (Tuscany Miller), Kate Forbes (Molly Petree), Katie Firth (Agnes Rutherford), Linda Stephens (Mariah Snow), Ed Sala (BJ Jarvis), and Tom Stechschulte (Simon Black).  Forbes, Firth, and Stephens are particularly good, with the first two having just the right amount of Southern accent, and Stephens effectively conveying the instability of Mariah.  Ferland is perfect at the ditzy Tuscany.

Each of the 15 discs begins and ends with folk music by Alice Gerrard, whose song "Agate Hill" inspired Lee Smith to write the novel. Smith wrote the words to the ballad "Molly and the Traveling Man," which Gerrard set to music.  While I liked the instrumentals, I did not particularly care for Gerrard's singing voice.

All in all, I'm glad I read this book, but I'm not sure I'd want to read any more of Lee Smith's works.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and a print copy of the book were borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

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