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Sunday Salon: On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

On Agate Hill
By Lee Smith
Completed January 19, 2008


In 1994, I began my graduate research studies about Southern girls and their education. It was a largely untapped subject; most of the scholarly studies involved girls from the North and their institutions of higher learning. Much attention was not paid to their Southern counterparts, largely because a renowned educational scholar dismissed Southern girls’ schools as “finishing schools” not of academic merit. As a result, scholars ignored Southern women’s education in the South before and after the Civil War, until the 1980’s and 1990’s, when historians such as Catherine Clinton, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Drew Gilpin Faust and Christie Farnham, studied and published books about the lives of Southern women, including their education.

For my master’s degree, I latched on to these prestigious coat tails and studied the education of girls who attended my alma mater, Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. I discovered that the girls attending Wesleyan before the Civil War endured a curriculum similar to most men’s colleges. I also learned that they had a fascinating social experience, including crushes on professors, fights with fellow students and skipping class. It seems little has changed in the way of college students!

I mention all of this because of my recent read, On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. In this book, we follow the life of Molly Petree, a girl orphaned by the Civil War, living on her uncle’s North Carolina plantation (Agate Hill) until her benefactor sent her to an all-women’s college in Virginia. After commencement, Molly and her friend Agnes Rutherford went to the mountains of North Carolina to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. There, Molly fell in love with a philandering mountain man, Jacky Jarvis, and together, they endured great hardships typical of mountain life at the turn of the century.

We learn about Molly’s life through a variety of primary (albeit fictional) resources: Molly’s diary entries and letters to her friend, Mary White, court testimonies by Jacky’s relatives, journal entries by Molly’s former headmistress, and letters by Agnes. Mixed in with the historical resources lies a modern-day context to the story. All of these materials were discovered by a Tuscany Miller, a college dropout, who found all of these papers in her father’s home, the historic Agate Hill. Tuscany researched Molly’s lives through public records and sent all of her research to her former college professor – all in an attempt to be re-accepted to college.

Without a doubt, Smith did her research when she wrote On Agate Hill. You learn about plantation life after the Civil War, the educational experiences of post-bellum Southern women and the hardships and joys of living in the North Carolina mountains. It’s a complete and fascinating picture. I highly recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction, especially of Southern and women’s history. Molly Petree is a character I won’t soon forget. She will live in my heart much like her Southern counterparts, Scarlett and Scout, who also taught me so much about the history of the American South. ( )
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Tags: 2008 books i've read, back to history reading challenge, beg borrow and steal challenge, book around the states, north carolina, sunday salon
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