Where the Heart Is
Novalee Nation has always been unlucky with sevens. She's seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight — and now she finds herself stranded at a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma, holding just $7.77 in change. An hour ago, she was on her way from Tennessee to a new life in Bakersfield, California. Suddenly, with all those sevens staring her in the face, she is forced to accept the scary truth: her no-good boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens has left her with empty pockets and empty dreams.
But Novalee is about to discover treasures hidden in Sequoyah — a group of disparate and deeply caring people, among them blue-haired Sister Thelma Husband, who hands out advice and photocopied books of the Bible...
Moses Whitecotton, the wise, soft-spoken, elderly black photographer eager to teach Novalee all he knows... and Forney Hull, the eccentric town librarian who hides his secrets — and his feelings — behind his world of books.
Novalee may be homeless and jobless, living secretly in a Wal-Mart, but she's beginning to believe she may have a future. Through all the touching and surprising adventures that lie ahead, she's going in the right direction.
Where the Heart Is puts a human face on the look-alike trailer parks and malls of America's small towns. It will make you believe in the strength of friendship, the goodness of down-to-earth people, and the healing power of love. And it will make you laugh and cry...every step of the way.
Letts is the author of numerous highly acclaimed short stories and screenplays and was honored with the Walker Percy Award for Where the Heart Is. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, Dennis, where she teaches creative writing at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
I suppose that in some mysterious ways everything I've read has helped me find the voice that speaks in my work, but there are some that are vivid in my memory.
The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, taught me to listen to the rhythm of language.
In Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I learned about the gift of hope that can come from writing honestly about pain.
Flannery O'Connor's short stories made me believe I could write in the language of my Oklahoma culture and tell stories about the people I come from.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee showed me that storytelling can change people's lives.
And in her collection Woman Hollering Creek, Sandra Cisneros gave me Salvador Late or Early, so powerful in its simplicity that I am humbled each time I read it.
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- The theme of "home" runs throughout this novel. Would you characterize home as a place, a family, a state of mind, or, as Sister Husband says, a place "where your history begins?" As a homeless person longing for a home, Novalee's image of home is heavily influenced by the images she sees in magazines. How influenced are we all by portrayals of home and home life in the media, movies, and on television?
- In the beginning of the novel, Novalee is a poor, uneducated teenage mother whose own mother abandoned her at a young age. Novalee, however, seems to be remarkably maternal and responsible in her parental role. Do you think this is a believable portrayal of teenage motherhood? Is it possible that lacking a loving mother herself she would be such a good mother? Both Novalee and Lexie defy our stereotypes of poor, single mothers. Do you think this is a strength or a weakness of the novel?
- Novalee's superstition about the number seven intensifies after the birth of her daughter. What do you make of Novalee's seemingly irrational fears? What role do superstitions play in the lives of even the most rational of us? Are there any other patterns or cycles you recognize in the novel?
- Despite his cruelty, women are attracted to Willy Jack and are wiling to take care of him. What is the attraction of cruel men to needy women? Lexie says, "Girls like us don't get the pick of the litter." What do you think of this statement? And why do you think that Novalee decides to help Willy Jack when she learns of his plight?
- Willy Jack's story is interspersed throughout the novel. Do you think his story is necessary to the plot? Why or why not? If this novel had been told through the eyes of Willy Jack Pickens, in what ways might we see Novalee differently?
- Novalee takes pictures to "see something in a way nobody else ever had" and Forney reads to explore the world outside the confines of his own life. Do you think books and photography help them deal with their lives or keep them from dealing with life head on? In what other ways do we use inanimate objects to either cope with life or hide from it?
- Children play an important role in this novel. How are their stories important? What do each of the children -- Americus, Benny, Praline, Brownie -- teach us about love and loss of innocence?
- Despite their struggles, Lexie's family is incredibly loving, fun-filled, and close. This is what makes the attack on Lexis and Brownie so heart wrenching and shocking. Do you think Brownie's trust in adults can ever be fully restored? Why do you think the author decided to include such a brutal scene in a book filled with so much kindness?
- How do you feel when Novalee spurned Forney? Did you believe they would ultimately end up together? Do you think they are well marched? Do you believe that differences in education and social class matter in a relationship, and what do you think makes it possible to bridge such differences? Or do you believe that people with similar backgrounds tend to be better matched?
- There are no traditional families in this novel. Why do you think the author chose to write a book about home and family yet disregarded established notions of what constitutes each? Though many of us accept and embrace different forms of family life, why do you think the traditional family is still frequently portrayed as mother/father/children? Do you think this remains the "ideal?"
Novalee Nation, 17 and pregnant, finds herself stranded outside a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma, with $7.77 in her pocket and no one to turn to for help. This is an unlikely beginning for a humorous and hopeful novel, but that is just what this is. As she sits outside the store taking stock of her situation, plucky Novalee meets several of the town's more unusual inhabitants: Sister Husband, who presents her with a shop-worn welcome-wagon basket; black photographer Moses Whitecotton, who conveys to her the importance of a name for her unborn child; and Indian Benny Goodluck, who gives her a buckeye tree for good luck. These and other Sequoyah citizens rally around Novalee when she has her baby on the floor of Wal-Mart, and form the basis for this most enjoyable novel.
—From School Library Journal
Letts's debut novel concerns a pregnant teenage girl who finds a new life among the quirky inhabitants of a small town in Oklahoma.
— From Publisher's Weekly
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- How did this book touch your life? Can you relate to it on any level? What do you believe is the message the author is trying to convey to the reader?
- Describe the character development in Where the Heart Is. How does Billie Letts use language and imagery to bring the characters to life?
- In your opinion, is the book entertaining? Explain why or why not.
- What did you learn from this book? Was it educational in any way?
- In conclusion, summarize your reading experience with Where the Heart Is. What grade would you give this novel?
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