Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

In 1987 Novalee and Willy Jack are headed across the country where they’re sure Willy Jack’s cousin will get him a great job in California. Seven months pregnant, Novalee has to stop frequently to use the bathroom, much to the annoyance of Willy Jack, who is clearly a user and a loser. As they head toward a Wal-Mart in a tiny town, Novalee puts Willy Jack’s hand on her belly, telling him he can feel the heartbeat. “It’s where the heart is,” she says. She gets out of the car, heads into the store, and it’s then that Willy Jack ditches her.

The main plot point you get upon reading the synopsis of Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts is that Novalee ends up living in the Wal-Mart, and even giving birth there with the help of the local librarian, Forney. But that’s only the first bit. While she hangs around the Wal-Mart that first day, unsure of what to do because she’s seventeen, pregnant, and stranded in an unfamiliar state, with no parents or other family and little education, Novalee meets a variety of locals who take to her. Each gives her (I admit saccharine) advice and a physical (sometimes useless) gift. As the story progresses the gifts and wisdom function as a measurement of growth, charting where Novalee started in this town and the impact neighbors and friends have on her and her daughter over the next seven years.

The thing I like about Letts is she writes what some call “cupcake” fiction, but it’s not that simple. Yes, some moments feel awfully Hallmark, but then she’ll kill off a character, or in the case of Where the Heart Is, include child sex abuse (content warning). Just when you feel warm and happy, something horrifying brings you back to the scary parts of reality we all bump into.

Also, Letts seems happy to write a diverse cast of characters. These are not all white people. In Where the Heart Is, we have Native American, Hispanic, and Black characters, all of which make sense because the novel is set in Oklahoma. Letts reflects the culture and population of the state, much to the benefit of the novel.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot for fear of rambling. It reads almost like a play with many Acts, moving Novalee and Willy Jack through various moments that stand out, such as his stint in prison and her winning a photo contest. There is some tension around Willy Jack; why are we following his story? Is he going to come looking for Novalee and try to get custody of their daughter? But the big, overarching tension in the novel is when will Novalee and Forney realize they’re in love, despite all their differences? In between you get lots of smaller story arcs, creating tension that is rapidly resolved.

Really enjoyable, has some dark moments, but does read as warm-and-fuzzy, too.

28 comments

    • I was so drawn into the story, but I think the characters in The Honk and Holler Opening Soon tipped over the edge just a bit for me, because there was a good mix of grumpy, hopeful, and dangerous characters.

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    • I feel like she’s a hard author to recommend even though I enjoy her books so much. Too many things come together too easily, but then someone is dead or shot or raped or whatever. Like, who does that fit? My first thought was the people who enjoy Christian fiction, but then the violent aspects wouldn’t appeal. The “lit” readers would find her too cheesy pie.

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  1. Read this back in 1998 or 99 when it first came out for a library-sponsored book group. It didn’t make for a very good book discussion, and all I can remember all these year later is I thought it was ok and it she lived in Walmart for a while. Clearly it didn’t make a big impression on me 🙂

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    • There’s a crazy chapter that focuses completely on child rape, which I did not see coming. I think I could whip up a whole discussion on who is the audience for this book, why does Letts include such terrible violence, and what do we make of each secondary character.

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      • Yes, a good book group could have pulled out an interesting discussion, but when it is an open library group with folks who don’t especially think too hard beyond “I liked it!” discussions were often awkward and rather painful.

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  2. I remember my internet reading group friends talking about this book. We got together around 1996/7 so this book was already out. I didn’t read it but I am intrigued. I don’t mind a bit of schmaltz when there’s edge as well.

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  3. I love that cover. The house up on blocks looks like it was moved there by truck. Half my grandfather’s farmhouse, on a less green plain, was moved there from another block in the 1930s, but at least he had the sense to plant an orchard and shade trees around it.
    I don’t think Americans reaslise just how different they are from the rest of the world – that an uneducated 17 year old with no family would have no option but to give birth in a WalMart.

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    • The aspect of the novel that is surprising to folks is that she was able to be undetected in the Wal-Mart, not that the foster care system lost track of her and let her run around with a boyfriend and then end up homeless. When I was still teaching college I had students who were 18 and homeless, which typically meant living out of a car. It’s not uncommon for students to camp near the campus and shower in the gym locker room, remaining undetected. Of course, these are all technically adults. A person in the foster care system who turns 18, to my knowledge, is removed from the system, so good luck to them. And do you know many people today who are really, truly prepared for adulthood at 18? Bank accounts, credit cards, rental agreements, a vehicle, etc? I don’t. Most people I know can’t even locate their social security card or birth certificate, and there is an odd trend of teenagers not seeking out driver’s licenses right now.

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  4. Those are some name choices. I knew this was a movie, I should have assumed it was based on a book. I have neither seen the movie nor read the book. Not sure it’s quite up my alley. I like a warm and fuzzy read, but like, once a year lol.

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  5. This does sound interesting, though I find novels with this kind of mood whiplash hard to read – if I want something a bit warm-and-fuzzy, I want it to be genuinely warm-and-fuzzy with nothing too dark happening in it, since in those circumstances I am normally reading for escapism.

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    • You sound much like my husband, Nick. He really wants the author to earn emotions, rather than doing some rhetorical manipulation to make us feel strongly without reason. I should ask what he thought, as I was reading this book aloud to him.

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  6. As I mentioned in your last post, I watched the trailer for this movie and was a) surprised I had never heard of the movie or book before and b) marveled at how crazy it is that kids give birth to other kids and people turn out alright despite it (or at least muddle their way through). I can’t imagine how scary teen pregnancy is, having a kid at 29 was hard enough!

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