Book Review - Ghost girl

Lee Smith talks about her latest novel, On Agate Hill

Lee Smith's latest novel, On Agate Hill, tells the story of Molly Petree, an orphan of the Civil War who refuses to accept any limitations on what she can do with her life. Smith spoke by phone from her home in Hillsborough, N.C.</
Tell me about ghost girls and angels, and why Molly doesn't want to be either one.</
This is a very unusual topic for me — the Civil War and Reconstruction — because I'm from the mountains where we really didn't do the Civil War. We didn't have any land to lose, no flat land. When I moved to Hillsborough, suddenly it was like stepping into history. And so I got really interested in my town and things that had happened literally just yards from my house.</
But Molly came to me because one aspect of the Civil War I had never even known about was the enormous refugee population that it created all over the South. Not only were these great armies crisscrossing the land, but people of every age — of every station, black and white alike, whether they had been the landed gentry or the forest dirt farmers — were on the move all across the South. They were on the move from wherever they were from, trying to find refuge. ...</
We all have this image of the static South where no one ever moves and nothing ever changes. Suddenly I saw ... alienation.</
Then, when I was writing [On Agate Hill], [Hurricane] Katrina happened. My Molly is a refugee girl and there were so many refugees of every race and class and station.</
That's why she feels like she's a ghost — because she has no one. She's a spiritual as well as a literal orphan. And she's in a very dangerous situation for a girl. And her response, of course, is to hide in her cubbyhole [from where] she reports to us on what she sees.</
But as she says, once people leave [the plantation], they never come back. It's a picaresque; it's her journey to be real.</
On Agate Hill starts out looking like it's going to follow this Dickensian arc — plucky little orphan girl gets rescued by a worldly and wealthy stranger, then goes on to marry a handsome rich man who gives her the better life she so richly deserves. But then Molly takes a pretty dramatic detour from that story arc, striking out for her demon lover instead. How come?</
But she's not really able to fall into that plot, to follow that narrative. And she makes some decisions that are not in her best interest, as who doesn't? I became aware when I was quite a ways into it that I was really writing a 19th century novel, and I love them. I mean Jane Eyre was one of my all-time favorite novels. And I realized I am just writing Jane Eyre with sex.</
But she is unable to marry in her own best interests. But I think we know that she's capable of rash choices. ... She wants a demon lover. This novel is all about staying safe and risking, staying safe and risking. Being a ghost girl versus being a real girl. She says, "I will never give all my heart." Holding back and giving all her heart. What do you risk when you fully engage with all your heart?</
She suffers a lot for the choices she makes, but she never seems to regret choosing the harder path.</
She is somebody who has taken control of her own story, and she's not falling into the "plucky orphan who is rescued" story. She takes care of herself; she makes her own history. I think that's one thing that happened in the Civil War is the expected stories, the narratives that had been so long formed for girls of Molly's station ... the kind of story that Molly was entering into at her birth rapidly became no longer possible. So suddenly she's creating her own narrative. ...</
Yet you chose to tell her story through the artifacts of her life, the "phenomena," she calls them. How come? Why not just let Molly tell her story?</
I've just always been very, very interested in how history derives, about how we arrive at any given version of the facts. Often, it seems to me that it's just by chance, it's highly arbitrary. Who found a bunch of letters? Whose attention were they brought to? Any version we have of history is just a certain version. ... Who knows how many boxes of letters and court documents we haven't found? Who knows what stories we don't know? So I was just playing around with that idea of how arbitrary history is.</
Molly's story doesn't follow the expected plot, the expected arc. In fact, it's a jumble. And it's very different from what anyone would have ever supposed. But she comes to a real peace and a real understanding of love and loss. And an unexpectedly beautiful end, I hope.</
When I was writing that, a whole lot of the last part of the book was not in my outline. ... There's always two things going on when you're writing a novel. There's the novel that you've outlined, and then there's your real life. Those two stories converge.</
I had started writing when my son died. He was just a wonderful, young man. He was schizophrenic. He was 34. He had been sick for 17 years, but was really doing very well. He had a heart attack, not expected at all. He gained a great deal of weight from the drugs he had been taking.</
He died. I stopped writing and was just a wreck for a very, very long time, and finally I went back to the novel on a psychiatrist's advice: "I want you to try writing again." I said, "I can't." He said, "Just show up for work — then, just sit in the chair." And I did start back, and I did work every day. Because it's all I've ever done: putting that one word in front of another when there's no order in your own life. ...</
Molly goes through a lot of grief, certainly, at being unable to have children, and a lot of loss. But she somehow comes through and reaches a kind of peace. ...</
So while in many ways this is a 19th century novel ... it has its elements of magical realism and it's sort of postmodern. I guess it's a risky kind of a novel, but life is a pretty risky proposition.</
What were you like when you were a girl?</
I was an only child of older parents who just read all the time. And I was a tomboy. I think I was a spitfire and a burden. Molly's exactly like me. And I had a best friend named Martha Sue who I did everything with. And Martha has died now. I guess that's one reason I liked writing about Mary White.</
Martha Sue and I saw fairies one time. And we believed in brownies that were these little guys that lived under the ground.</
Religion, Christianity specifically, plays a big role in this book — as I know it does in much of your work. You have Mariah Snow who has this agonizing inner dialog between her inner demons and her holier-than-thous. You have Cecilia who is all high and mighty, but not a good woman at all. So, what questions about religion are you asking?</
I started off as a testifying child, as a very religious child prone to visions and voices and every kind of thing. And I was a very imaginative child and also very emotional child and would love nothing better than to go out on the town with children whose parents spoke in tongues.</
My own family was Methodist. My mother taught Home Ec, and I think Home Ec is just the opposite of speaking tongues. So I was drawn toward the more charismatic forms. But I went to an Episcopal school where I got so tired of praying all the time that the ritual kind of boiled all that out of me.</
It's impossible, I think ... to write any story that takes place in the South without coming smack up against religion. The South is still Christ-haunted, as Flannery O'Connor said. Even those of us who aren't as religious as we used to be agonize about it all the time. ... I go to an Episcopal church, and I derive a lot of satisfaction from that. But I'm still drawn to all different forms of religion and to people who experience their faith in many different ways.

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