Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Where the Heart Is - by Billie Letts

This is the third Billie Letts book I've blogged about here. Each one was found by serendipity - the first (Made in the U.S.A.) while browsing the leisure reading shelf of the library where I work, and the other (Shoot the Moon) at Somethin's Brewing Book Cafe. This one I found at The Little Free Library which recently appeared on Washington St. in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, near where my beach house is located. I was thrilled to be able to ride my bike there and pick out a book.

Of the three Letts' books this one is the most library-centric, and includes at least three different kinds of libraries (public, academic, and prison). The libraries tend to be positive forces for the characters in the books; the librarians, however leave a bit to be desired.

When seven-months-pregnant Novalee Nation is abandoned by her boyfriend at the Wal-Mart in Sequoya, Oklahoma she meets an eclectic group of people who help her out in some unexpected ways. She camps out at the store each night, and hides from the employees as they open it each morning. During the day she explores Sequoya and finds the public library "a two-story brick building with a black wrought-iron fence, the lawn planted with joseph's coat, calendula and foxglove." The first library Novalee had ever been in that "didn't have wheels under it". Inside she discovered
a room with dark wood carved into intricate designs, tall windows of thick, frosted glass and red velvet drapes held back with silver cord, chandeliers whose crystal drops caught fragments  of light transfused into rich blues and deep greens, paintings in gold frames of nude women with heavy bellies and thick thighs. And books. Racks of books, stacks of books, walls of books.
The librarian, however, was absent, as she was informed by the only other person in the building. Forney Hull turned out to be the alcoholic librarian's brother who took care of both his sister and her patrons. Forney and his sister live in the library, which before becoming the library was their childhood home. Novalee is enchanted with the idea of  being able to live at the library "to have all those books to read..." She also gets to celebrate her birthday at the library. This is the first library birthday celebration I have come across, and I had actually been wondering if I would ever find one!

Meanwhile, Novalee's good-for-nothing ex, Willy Jack (a.k.a. Billy Shadow), winds up in prison for theft. There he meets Claire Hudson, prison librarian:
She was a big woman who had to shop for queen tall pantyhose and size eleven shoes, double E. She wore dark clothes - stiff gray gabardines, navy twills and black serges...boxy suits with high necks, long sleeves and tight collars. Claire avoided garments with lace, bows and fancy buttons and she owned no jewelry, not even a watch. She held strong disdain for anything showy, allowing herself only one extravagance: Band-Aids....She wore them constantly and in abundance...She covered her warts, moles and ingrown hairs...pimples, cuts and fever blisters...burns, abrasions, hangnails and bites...eczema, psoriasis, scratches and rashes. 
Clair Hudson changes Willy Jack's life when she helps him to get a guitar to keep in his cell and he writes a song. Ultimately, though, she betrays him. It is unclear whether it is out of simple meanness, or perhaps because of some mental illness.

One other library gets a shout out - the one at Bowdoin College in Maine. No other information about the library is provided except that is is "great".

This book had a lot of surprises, and ultimately a happy ending, without being too sappy. Libraries play an important role as places of turning points for the characters.

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