Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Red Dirt Girls

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

I bet that even Lee Smith's grocery lists are good reading. Some of them would make you feel like you were outside in springtime (orange sections; basil; 2 pomegranates; brie). Some would be straightforward (wine, fashion magazine, chocolate ice cream, pack of Marlboro Lights), and others would require you to put the pieces together yourself, however weird or disturbing the tale might be (e.g. paint thinner, diapers, hearts of palm, veal).

Smith's writing falls into two basic groups. The first involves stories of modern southern women questioning the tenets of southern womanhood, to hell with what the Junior League has to say about it. Strong, emotionally complex, charming books -- like Barbara Kingsolver meets Steel Magnolias. In the other variety, Smith writes historical fiction that conveys both the weight of the past and the arbitrary breeziness of the choices that determine it. As she did in Fair and Tender Ladies, Smith demonstrates in On Agate Hill that a life story is bigger than a single life. But no matter what she's writing, there is always a story there, and it is always a corker.

Following the success of Smith's bestselling The Last Girls, On Agate Hill was released fairly quietly this fall. However, the riveting storytelling here stands up to some of Smith's best work.

The book begins with Molly Petree, orphaned during the Civil War, and living with her dying uncle in a crumbling plantation. It's a slice of the Reconstruction Era that calls to mind Gone With the Wind without the simplistic idealism and racism of that book. Later portions of the book follow Molly to a rigorous boarding school led by an unstable religious zealot and her lecherous husband; then, to her unlikely marriage and life in the backwoods; by the book's end, Molly has faced everything from stillborn babies to murder charges.

A thoroughly absorbing read - I didn't want it to end. If you like contemporary southern fiction, and haven't read Lee Smith, well, then you can't really say you like contemporary southern fiction because you clearly don't know what you're talking about.

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