Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

This novel of modern Oklahoma is something of an enigma.

It tells the story of a girl named Novalee Nation, from the time when she is 17 years old until she is in her mid-twenties. Eight months pregnant, naïve, and actually somewhat ignorant, she has left her home in Tellico Plains, Tennessee with her boyfriend Willie Jack Pickens and is headed for Bakersfield, California.where the heart is

Novalee is quite charming in her ignorance. She believes that the number seven always brings her bad luck.  After all, on her seventh birthday, her mother ran away with a baseball player, leaving her to the kindness of friends and orphanages, in the seventh grade, her only friend got sent to the Tennessee State School for Girls, and when she got stabbed in the arm at the bar she worked at, the wound required seventy-seven stitches.

When her shoes fall through the floor of the car and she has relieve her bladder, Willie Jack pulls into a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma. He gives her ten dollars, then drives off and leaves her there.  She figures it out when her change from the ten dollars comes to $7.77.

On her first day there, she meets three people who will be instrumental in her survival and good fortune: Sister Husband, a blue-haired lady who runs the town Welcome Wagon, Moses Whitecotton, a baby photographer, and Benny Goodluck, a Native American boy who gives her a buckeye tree. At a loss for what to do, she simply lives in the Wal-Mart, keeping tabs of how much she owes them for the products she uses.  When the buckeye tree starts to get sickly, she goes to the town library and meets Forney Hull.  A strange young man addicted to knowledge, Forney runs the library while his sister, the alcoholic librarian, lives upstairs.  He becomes extremely protective of Novalee and he busts a plate glass window in the Wal-Mart to help her when she gives birth to a daughter.  Cautioned by Moses that she must give her baby a very strong name, she names the girl Americus.

A reader might derive from this that the novel is all about a naïve person overcoming their background to make a success of their life—and it’s true that part of the novel is definitely about that. All of the strange and interesting names would also suggest an air of goofy whimsy—and it’s true that part of the novel fits that description.  In fact, there is such a relaxed, fun, and goofy feeling about the book that the hard parts seem to come out of the blue.  However, they do not.  The gritty, sexually perverse parts of the novel only accent how important it is to appreciate the good things in your life, the people who are important to you, and the value of overcoming even the deepest, darkest adversity.

If the book has any theme, though, it is a message to young women: do not base your sexual or long-term relationships on how a boy looks or how much money a man makes.  While Novalee and Lexi make a long string of mistakes, their lives are contrasted sharply with Sister Husband, whose one illicit relationship carries far more love than that of Willie Jack or any of the men who have left Lexi with children—or the one man who left her beaten and sodomized her children. It is a very good feeling when both of these incredible women finally figure out what is important.

This novel is quite an achievement. You can hear Oklahoma on every page with the voice of the author, in the sound of the characters’ voices, in the wind blowing across the prairie.  It is inspiring, uplifting, and yet gritty and realistic.

I highly recommend this book!

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