Where the Heart Is (novel)
|August 17, 1995|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||368 p. (paperback edition)|
|ISBN||0-340-64698-5 (paperback edition)|
Where the Heart Is is a 1995 novel by Billie Letts. It was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection in December 1998. A 2000 film of the same name was directed by Matt Williams, starring Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing.
Where the Heart Is follows the lives of Novalee Nation, Willy Jack Picken, and their daughter Americus Nation for a period of seven years in the 1980s and early 1990s. Above all, the book dramatizes in detail the tribulations of lower-income and foster children in the United States.
This novel opens with Novalee and Willy Jack, her then boyfriend, traveling from Tennessee to California. At the time, Novalee is "seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight, and superstitious about sevens." Letts describes Novalee's relationships with the number 7; at the age of 7 her mother ran off with a baseball umpire named Fred, her best friend in seventh grade got arrested and a crazy customer at her cafe job cut her from wrist to elbow and took seventy-seven stitches to close her up."
Novalee makes Willy Jack place his hand on her stomach so that he can feel the baby's heart. Even though he obviously does, he says that he feels nothing. Novalee convinces Willy Jack to stop at a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma, so she can use the restroom and purchase a pair of sandals, as hers fell through the floor of their beat up car. When Novalee comes out of the Wal-Mart, she realizes Willy Jack has left her with nothing more than her beach bag and the $7.77 she has in change from the purchase of new sandals.
With nowhere else to go, Novalee spends the afternoon at the Wal-Mart and meets "Sister Husband", a kind and spunky woman who runs the town's "Welcome Wagon." Sister Husband has a deep faith and hands out chapters of the Bible to people she meets. When they first meet, Sister Husband "mistakes" Novalee for a girl named Ruth Ann Mott and gives Novalee a Welcome Wagon basket. She also meets Moses Whitecotton, a photographer who shoots portraits at the Wal-Mart. Moses tells Novalee to give her baby a name "that will mean something" and "withstand a lot of bad times", as well as a photo album. He later becomes Novalee's mentor as she becomes more invested in photography. In addition, she also meets Benny Goodluck, a Native American boy, who gives Novalee a buckeye tree for good luck. Meanwhile Willy Jack continues on his way to California and comes across a girl named Jolene with car problems. Willy Jack agrees to give her a ride but they are soon stopped by police because Jolene shoplifted from a store and the police believe it was Willy Jack since Jolene is only fourteen years old. He is subsequently arrested and sent to jail.
As Novalee lives in Walmart, she watches as the buckeye tree becomes sick. She takes a walk to the library where she meets Forney Hull who helps her find books about the buckeye. Forney is from a well-bred family but had to drop out of college to take care of his alcoholic sister. He appears "crazy" and shouts facts he has read from books at Novalee. Novalee takes a walk to Sister Husband's home, who had told Novalee in Walmart she was welcome to visit her house any time, to ask Sister Husband if she could plant her buckeye on her property.
As the weeks pass, Novalee becomes good friends with Forney, Sister Husband and her companion Mr. Sprock. Novalee is forced to have her baby in the Wal-Mart, but Forney breaks a window and helps her give birth. At the hospital she befriends her nurse Lexi who is obese and has four different children with different fathers. She finds out that she and her baby are famous and in the news. Remembering Moses Whitecotton's advice on picking a name for her daughter, Novalee decided to name her Americus. Novalee's mother finds out which hospital she's at because of the news report on her, but Novalee finds out the hard way that her intentions were just for money.
Sister convinces Novalee to move in with her and Novalee starts to work in the Walmart where she used to stay. Sister eventually becomes a mother figure to Novalee and her daughter over the course of the plot. Willy Jack becomes a talented musician while locked up and once he gets out he immediately tries to get an agent to represent him. The only one who agrees to give him a chance is Ruth Meyers who soon makes him famous using the alias "Billy Shadow".
Three years have passed and Novalee has steadily becoming a talented photographer alongside Moses Whitecotton. She takes pictures at many different events and is also hired by many people to take their pictures. She has heard Billy Shadow's song "The Beat of the Heart" on the radio but cannot understand why it bothers her so much since she doesn't know that it is actually Willy Jack singing. Forney has become one of her best friends and he loves taking care of Americus. Lexi has since had another baby and is also currently seeing a new man named Roger. Benny Goodluck has also grown into a young man who sees Novalee often.
One summer, a massive tornado blows through Oklahoma and many other states, leaving many people dead. Sadly, one of these people is Sister Husband. Since the Walmart and Sister's trailer was also destroyed, Novalee decides to move to the next town where the Walmart is being rebuilt. To her great surprise, Novalee learns that Sister left all of her possessions and life insurance in Novalee's name. She is able to build a house right where Sister's trailer use to be and where her buckeye tree is miraculously still standing.
Willy Jack has since become cocky and tries to go behind Ruth Meyers' back to get a better agent. She learns of this and makes sure that he no longer is able to get any gigs.
Novalee is seen struggling with her feelings for Forney after Lexi points out that Forney has been in love with Novalee for a long time. Novalee believes that Forney deserves someone better than her since it always intimidated her that Forney came from a well-known rich family. One day she receives a weird phone call from Lexi's oldest son Brownie and immediately rushes over to her apartment. She finds all of the children in distress and Lexi extremely injured. While Lexi is recovering, Novalee moves her and her five kids to her house. Lexi confesses to Novalee one night that she walked in on Roger abusing her son Brownie and oldest daughter Praline. She attacked him and he fought back and ran away. She chastises herself for being a stupid woman who couldn't see past Roger's looks and his fancy car while Novalee comforts her.
Forney's sister Mary Elizabeth dies and Novalee goes to visit him and offer her support. They end up making love before Forney has to leave to go to Maine to bury his sister. Lexi meanwhile befriends Brownie's soccer coach, Ernie, who isn't typically the type of man who catches Lexi's interest but she soon falls in love with him. When Forney comes back, Novalee breaks his heart by telling him that she can't love him the way that he loves her and she breaks down in tears after she leaves him. With nothing tying him to Oklahoma anymore, Forney decides to leave and periodically sends letters to Americus schooling her about what books to read and to extend his best wishes to Novalee. Novalee is soon taking pictures of Lexi and Ernie on their wedding day and learning of a new pregnancy. She and Americus are miserable because of Forney's absence.
Willy Jack has lost everything that he used to have. He has slowly spiraled into drugs and alcohol and being a washed-up musician. One night he is drunkenly staggering across some train tracks after ditching his current girlfriend and doesn't notice the oncoming train. He is severely injured and has to have both his legs amputated.
Novalee finally reunites with Willy after she finds out about his accident in the paper. Willy Jack confesses to Novalee that he did feel the baby's heart that last day that they were together and that he periodically called her home from time to time. He tells her that he called every time he was in a troubled spot and that he instantly felt better once he heard Americus's voice. When Novalee asks him why he lied about the baby's heart, Willy Jack tells her that he doesn't have a good reason but that sometimes people say such a huge lie that it changes their whole life. That if given a second chance, most people would do anything to set that lie straight. Novalee realizes that the lie she has told and that has changed her life is telling Forney that she didn't love him. Once Willy Jack is released, Novalee attempts to find Forney using the letters that he has sent to Americus and his love of books. She also has Willy Jack all set up in her car so that she can drive him back home to Tennessee. She finally calls and finds Forney in a bookstore in Chicago. She tearfully confesses to Forney that she lied about loving him and that she thought he deserved someone better. Forney assures her that there is nothing better that her and that he is coming home to her and Americus.