The eventful life of a Civil War orphan
Lee Smith's new novel returns to the travails of Reconstruction-era North Carolina.
"I live in a house of ghosts." That's the statement with which the plucky, orphaned heroine of Lee Smith's twelfth novel, On Agate Hill, inaugurates her diary in 1872.
"I don't want to be an angel any more than I want to be a ghost girl," Molly Petree adds in a later entry. "I want to be a real girl and live as hard as I can in this world.... I want to live so hard and love so much I will use myself all the way up like a candle...."
Smith is known and loved for rich storytelling that spans decades and captures the vibrant voices of impoverished but strong women in southern Appalachia. In novels such as "Fair and Tender Ladies" and "Oral History" she reaches deep into a region and a late 19th-century world in which infant mortality was just as common as schooling was spotty.
Her last novel, "The Last Girls" (2002), was something of an exception, a southern "Uncommon Women and Others" or "The Group" about four 1965 graduates of Agnes Scott College who reunite 24 years later to scatter the ashes of their dynamic but troubled ringleader on the Mississippi River in homage to the rafting trip they took after graduation.
Although more contemporary than her best-known work, it too focuses on the often unpredictable and difficult trajectories of women's lives.
While "The Last Girls" interweaves stories of five different women, "On Agate Hill" returns to post-Civil War North Carolina and the life of just one woman, conveyed mainly through diary entries, letters, and legal testimony.
But true to her aspirations, Molly Petree's life goes through so many twists and turns that she can just as well be said to have lived several. Smith, likewise, tries to cram enough material for several novels into this one. Molly's difficult odyssey takes her from a ruined plantation and decimated family in the defeated, wrecked South to a girls' boarding school to mountain life and remote one-room schoolhouses on the Tennessee border.
A tangential sketch hints at the fascinating world of the Confederados, southerners who had nothing more to lose and so sought their fortunes in Brazil.
To frame her saga, Smith resorts to a somewhat strained narrative device that she has used before: a student fulfilling a college assignment – in this case a documentary studies thesis – by considering the material in question.
The Molly Petree memorabilia lands in flaky Tuscany Miller's lap when her estranged, transgender father and his gay lover buy the rundown North Carolina plantation, Agate Hill, and remodel it into a fancy bed-and-breakfast. (Tuscany's father's sex change is one of the more glaring extraneous details in Smith's novel.)
Molly had started her diary on her 13th birthday, enumerating her losses: her parents, a baby brother and sister, and two older brothers killed in the war. Her beloved aunt, who also lost a son at Gettysburg and had another return insane, has recently died in childbirth. Molly's guardian, her desperately bereft uncle, is a sitting duck for his tenant farmer's promiscuous wife, who "wraps her arms around him like a vine. Like poison ivy, is what I think."
Molly is an astute observer, noting, "The things that people really want are the most like to kill them, it seems to me, such as war and babys." It's no wonder she resists marriage, but she's a passionate soul, and ultimately she does succumb to a banjo-strumming fellow free spirit.
Smith captures the hopelessness of reduced circumstances, including frozen wells and food so scarce that hogs are slaughtered and reduced to "everything but the squeal."
When a mysterious benefactor dressed in black (named Simon Black) gallops onto the scene, he swoops Molly off to a boarding school run by a perpetually pregnant, bitter woman who recites Milton while her husband "exercised his Conjugal Rights." The Gatewood Academy section of the novel is, rather heavy-handedly, titled "Paradise Lost."
Simon Black, the Daddy-Long-Legs who makes several shadowy appearances over the decades, is a childhood friend of Molly's mother from the also none-too-subtly named Perdido plantation. The reasons for his interest in Molly's life – not revealed until the end of the novel – turn out to be considerably less compelling than one might imagine.
Smith has a penchant for tying up loose ends, with quick life summaries of even minor characters, including Molly's classmates. Although this has its satisfactions, it makes her ambiguity on several more urgent questions, including the fate of Molly's one true childhood friend and the sequence of events that lands Molly in jail for a time, seem even odder.
Smith is absolutely clear, however, on one thing: the importance of living passionately, with all one's heart – whatever the consequences.
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.