Where the Heart Is
by Billie Letts
“Home gives you something no other place can . . . your history . . .
home is where your history begins.”
There are a few books and authors that I’ve read over the last twenty-five years or so that have stuck with me. Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. J.K. Rowling (for obvious reasons). Sophie Kinsella’s effortlessly girlish romances saturated with hilarious mishaps. Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. Mohsin Hamid’s raw and almost painfully honest views of the world and the people who inhabit it. Billie Letts’ debut novel, Where the Heart is.
This book stuck in my guts. It was like drinking warm milk and honey at first, but then, it became the inevitable stomach-ache that comes after drinking too much of the sweet drink. It was the character’s heartaches that roped me in and the way she steadfastly held onto her dreams that kept me going. It was my fear for Novalee that gave me that stomach ache; maybe because I could see so much of myself inside of her, and I was afraid that she’d never be able to escape the bad that seemed to dog her steps no matter how fast she ran.
Frightfully pregnant and 17, Novalee is miserable. She’s large and most definitely not in charge, and her flip flops have just disappeared through the broken floor of her boyfriend’s trashed out car. On the road with Willy Jack, boyfriend and the father of the ever-growing baby in her cumbersome belly, Novalee can’t wait to put her pudgy toes right into the sandy beaches of California, and she’s all to happy to leave Tennessee in the dust. Begging Willy Jack to pull over at a Wal-Mart so she can clear her bladder and buy a new pair of shoes for her swollen feet, Novalee waddles in to handle business. But when she waddles out, she is dismayed to learn that Willy Jack has abandoned her, driving away and leaving her alone in his dirty rearview mirror.
Too overwhelmed to try and come up with any real plan, Novalee flits around the Wal-Mart and as is her spunky personality’s custom, she begins to make friends. Sister Husband is eccentric and pushy, cramming photocopied pages from the Bible into the hands of those she believes needs them. Moses Whitecotton is both wise and sincere, and urges Novalee to give her child a name that means something. Benny Goodluck decides so spread some of his blessings to Novalee and gifts her a small tree, promising her that as long as the tree flourishes, so will she. But the day eventually comes to a close, and without any other prospect in sight, Novalee bunks down in the Oklahoma Wal-Mart for the night, making sure to keep a detailed record of all the supplies she uses so she can pay the company back every cent.
As the weeks pass and Novalee becomes a veritable resident at the Wal-Mart, she (to her horror) eventually gives birth somewhere right around Aisle 9. A quirky friend she met at the library, the introverted but interesting Forney, helps her deliver a beautiful baby girl that Novalee names Americus. The name seems to be strong enough and laced with enough meaning to create good fortune for her brand new daughter, and Wal-Mart provides Novalee with a little fame and fortune all of her own. As a Wal-Mart employee by day and a budding photographer by night, the new mother and her sweet daughter move forward in the attempts at carving out a nice and quiet spot of life for themselves among the widespread plains of Oklahoma.
Weeks transition into months, and months into years. . . and Novalee grows just as her daughter Americus does. Armed with good friends and sweet tea, Novalee does her best to be a woman that her daughter can look up to and be proud of. But when the blast from the past of Willie Jack’s voice crooning through the radio airwaves catches Novalee’s attention, she has to wonder — where is the father of her baby? Where has he been? Why did he leave her? The invisible strings connecting her to her troubled and naive past grow taut, and Novalee has a hard time seeing the new strands of love that connect her to the here and now.
Where the Heart Is is one of those feel-good stories that you can read again and again without tiring of them. Sinking into this book is like curling up in a familiar and worn-out arm chair with a threadbare blanket over your knees and a warm coffee in your hand — it truly feels like home. I give the book 4.5 of 5 stars, and recommend it to lovers of fiction, the underdog, and good ole’ Southern living. Readers can also enjoy this book in it’s film adaptation, starring Natalie Portman as Novalee Nation.