I had mixed feelings reading this book. The opening, as a collection of letters and diaries introduced by a young amateur historian, is clever and the historian is charming, but it delays the reader from getting into the actual story. And the story does take some getting into. I don't like to abandon a book once I've started it, but On Agate Hill took some work.
The first part, the diary of young Molly Petree, was the hardest part of the book for me. I'm a big fan of Southern Gothic, but her meandering childhood on her uncle's decaying plantation was unfocused, with too much time spent in day-to-day descriptions while the cataclysmic events that alter her character and destiny are rushed and unexplained.
The latter half of the book gets better. Molly's school days are described through the eyes of a bizarrely creepy headmistress and feels reminiscent of Jane Eyre and A Little Princess. Her time spent teaching in the mountains is charming, and her discovery of love and romance feels genuine. The tragedies that beset her later life are moving and almost made me cry. But the final "mystery" of Molly's mysterious benefactor is remarkably anticlimactic, and the overall patchiness of the story never really gels. Each individual section, except the beginning, makes an interesting anecdote, but overall On Agate Hill never becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
I really enjoyed this book. It starts as a coming-of-age story of a spitfire orphan girl of good Southern family after the Civil War and follows her through her life, which takes her into the mountains of North Carolina as a teacher and musician's wife. Full of wonderful quirky characters in a society in shambles, with an good plot that unfolds through a diary and letters. It's about relationships, not history, but the effects of the Civil War on the South are part of the atmosphere. A very readable novel with a protagonist-narrator, Molly Petree, who is a very memorable woman.