With a sniff and a sigh, I just finished "On Agate Hill" by Lee Smith. I've been away from novels for several years, but I've always loved Lee Smith and when I saw the book in trade paper, it all but jumped off the shelf into my hands. This was in Nashville at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, so my girls played contentedly with the Thomas the Tank Engine train table while I read the back of the book. Curled up in a mission-style rocker, which I coveted, I read the author's notes in which Smith describes the death of her adult son and her difficulty returning to writing while still grieving. I was wiping tears from my eyes when I put "Agate Hill" on my stack of "must buys."
Molly Petree is the heroine of "Agate Hill," and the story traces her life as an orphan in North Carolina following the Civil War clear through her adult life at the turn of the century. Molly is familiar in that she's the spitfire Southern girl I've always wanted either to be or have as my best friend. She reminds me very much of Cean in Caroline Miller's "Lamb in His Bosom" or any of the spunky heroines of Edna Ferber, or even Catherine Marshall's "Christy." The rural, pre-industrial North Carolina setting and characters spark to life like flint to steel.
Years ago, I attended a luncheon at which Lee Smith spoke. She told her albino squirrel story, which I would repeat, but I'm afraid I wouldn't get the details right. The story has to do with an albino squirrel that she wrote about on her very first day as a reporter for a small town newspaper. I laughed as tears of familiarity ran down my face. If you've answered phones at a small town newspaper, and interviewed the local citizens, the somewhat normal and the flat-out crazy, you'd know why I laughed.