Where the Heart Is, by Billie Lett ****

wheretheheartis  I recently read and enjoyed another title by this author. A quick internet search brought me to this title, which the same search told me had made Oprah’s book club. I rarely watch daytime television and have never seen that show, but I know that books she recommends are often titles I like as well. Such was the case here.

Just imagine it: seventeen years old, basketball-belly pregnant, and riding in a car so beat-up that when you nod off, your shoes fall off your feet and through the rusted-out spot in the floor of the car. There they go! And what could be worse than that?

Then the man of your dreams, who to be fair doesn’t seem all that engaged in your relationship, drops you off at Walmart to get some house shoes, and floors it as soon as you enter the store. There he goes, too.

This story is fascinating because it forces us to examine the difference between innocence and ignorance, between the trusting nature that being a trustworthy person sometimes engenders, versus straight-up stupidity.

Novalee Nation is innocent and maybe a little bit ignorant, but when given the chance to improve her own knowledge base, she does it with enthusiasm. She isn’t stupid; she suddenly realizes, as she enters the Walmart, that Roger would not have given her a ten dollar bill when she only asked for five, if he hadn’t planned to dump her there. She runs back out to the parking lot, but she’s too late. All she has now is Walmart.

Once in awhile the fringe characters in this affable tale are a tad overdrawn (all those bandaids; really?), but most of them–Sister Husband, Forney, Moses Whitecotton, and others, not to mention our protagonist– are so palpable that I found myself inventing other scenarios for them as if they were actual people. That’s always a good sign.

So get your copy–I got mine at the Seattle Public Library–and hunker down in your favorite reading spot. This is engaging fiction from a writer I’ll be following in years to come.

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, by Billie Letts ****

The Honk and HollerThis is a bittersweet story about quirky yet ordinary characters in a little out-of-the-way place in Oklahoma. The point of view swings from one perspective to another. MollyO is protective of the cafe’s owner, a complicated man who was rendered paraplegic in Vietnam. She longs for her daughter, Brenda, a runaway, to come home and stay. Bui is living covertly in a nearby church. He comes to work at the cafe. I watched this character unfold particularly carefully. I live in an area where there are a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, and I watched for stereotyping or assumptions on the part of the writer. In the end, though, Bui rang true to me, an endearingly familiar sounding man with a really good heart. And then the list continues.

I don’t like small towns; I prefer large northern metropolitan cities. I do like to read novels featuring working class protagonists, though, and I think it was this feature, believably rendered without undue sentimentality, that worked for me. I have older family members who lived in Oklahoma before I was born, and this novel evoked a strong pull on them, a sense of place nearly tangible to them.

If four and a half stars were possible, I’d give them here. Read it if you enjoy good fiction with strongly drawn characters.

Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir, by Tony Hillerman *****

seldomdisappointedHillerman was one of my favorite writers. I am so darned sorry he is gone. I read this partly because I enjoy autobiographies and memoirs (especially at bedtime; they are so linear that I can keep track while I am getting sleepy) and also because I had read all of his mysteries and had none of his novels left to read. But this one is an award-winner in its own right, which I did not know before diving in. It’s a real treasure.

Hillerman grew up in Oklahoma, and he grew up around American Indian kids. He learned a fair amount that way, but once he began writing about them, he felt he had not served them well enough, and so he wrote another novel with the same focus in an effort at getting it right. And so it went. He is the only Caucasian writer ever to have been named a Friend of the Navajo by that tribe, though I found this information on one of the fly-leafs of a novel, not in this book; he is humble and unassuming.

The name of the novel came from a saying of his mother’s: “Blessed are they that expect little, for they shall be seldom disappointed.”

Hillerman talks a lot about his experiences in World War II, and at first, one may think it is just an old man telling war stories. He tells his better than most, of course. But there’s more to it than that. He was badly injured in this war, and he considers himself fortunate to have been an artilleryman, since he says that riflemen got killed fastest; I always had heard that artillerymen got dead quicker than anyone, but that’s not what he says, and who knows whether this is just modesty or whether World War II was different from the general rule (or whether what I read that military historians recorded was wrong information, for that matter).

But Hillerman’s bent isn’t actually military history, it’s his own story, and this was a major part of it. He has a way of coming full circle with various points in his tale. Things that are mentioned at the beginning of the book show up at the end, changed yet the same. (Check the detail with which he describes a game of marbles during his childhood; it’s going to show up again.)

There are two things I really like besides the fact that the guy was really great with the written word. One is his working class trajectory. This comes out in his novels (and instead of mansions with tennis courts, his heroes live in thin-walled aluminum trailers or hogans with no running water), and his dedication to his wife. I have never seen a man wax so effusively over a woman he’s been married to for decades; it says a lot about his character.

I’ve read a lot of this genre, but this is one of the finest of its example I’ve read to date. Highly recommended (and never disappointed).