Billie Letts

(Jump down to read a review of Where the Heart Is)

"Shoot the Moon"

(reviewed by Judi Clark JUL 24, 2004)

"The story, on the loose now, raced through the community like an unbridled child. Rumors climbed over backyard fences, skipped from street to street, romped down the aisles of WalMart, tumbled through the laundromat and cartwheeled through the park."

Shoot the Moon by Billie Letts

The residents of DeClare, Oklahoma have been living with a mystery since 1972; the year a 19-year-old mother, Gaylene Harjo was violently murdered and her baby's body, though never found, was also assumed to have been murdered. Joe Dawson was locked up for suspicion of the crime and the case was closed when three hours after his incarceration he commits suicide with the same knife that killed Gaylene. Tenous proof at best, one that never sat right with most in DeClare.

Twenty-seven years later Mark Albright, a Hollywood veterinarian, hesitantly arrives in DeClare. Mark is there to meet the woman's whose name is listed on some adoption papers he uncovered after burying the last of his two parents. The fact that he was adopted, which he's only known about for two weeks, is a truth he is still experiencing shock over. So when he finally gets up the nerve to go into Teeve's Place, to ask questions about how to find Gaylene Harjo, he's even more thrown to learn about the 1972 murder; nor is he prepared for the sensation his appearance creates in this small town.

This is quite the story peopled with lots of folks, many of them related in one way or another, and most all of them were around in 1972. Teeve was married to Gaylene's brother. Not too long after Gaylene was killed, her husband left town with all the cash that they had, leaving Teeve with their six-year-old daughter, Ivy, and a bar. Teeve turned the bar into a sandwich shop and pool hall. Ivy, now an adult, has recently returned home -- pregnant and unwilling to discuss her situation -- but more than helpful with helping Teeve run the place. Teeve and Ivy take Mark in like the family that he is. There are others just as interested in learning the truth of Gaylene's murder including Joe Dawson's son and a woman reporter who has a bit of unfinished business with Sheriff "O Boy" Daniels.

The book gets its name from a domino game that three elderly men play everyday at Teeve's Place. As they explain to Mark as he sits in on a game, "it means he's gonna go for all the tricks... The whole kit and kaboodle." Aptly, Ivy points out to Mark that if he is to find out who murdered his birth mother, then he is going to have to accept everything about his situation, to take the risk to learn what he has to learn. Up to this point, Mark has lived a privileged life,"They took me to New York when I was seven, to Paris when I was ten, I skied Aspen every winter. I lived the life most people only dream of." Certainly a life far different than anyone has experienced in DeClare. But it's not so much this disparity that he must acknowledge; he must dispel who "his people" are. The basic truth of his situation is that the people who have loved him most have lied to him his entire life. For example, his dark skin does not come from a grandparent with Mediterrean genes, but because he's partially Cherokee like everyone else in this town. Mark Albright is Nicky Harjo, the son of a woman who never had a chance. To shoot the moon, Mark will need to discover his father's identity, who may even turn out to be the murderer, a secret that Gaylene took to her grave.

There is certainly something intriguing about suddenly finding out that one is adopted, and in another book how this feels could be the whole focus. Letts doesn't bring the reader down this path of deep contemplation. This is a light book, with down home talk, humorous moments and an easy suspense that lets Gaylene and Nicky Harjo's story unfold to a surprising but logical conclusion. It is a story that affects the whole town and thus it involves everyone to some degree, as is Letts' style. And it has a happy ending.

When I first started this website, I received frequent e-mail from high school girls wanting to know when Billie Letts' next book would be coming out. The natural question is will her fans be satisfied with this long awaited novel? While Mark Albright is a far different character than Novalee Nation, the book itself has some common threads with Where the Heart Is which includes unwed mothers, family and the roles of fathers. It also takes place in Oklahoma. I suspect the book won't have the same appeal to the female high school reader as Where the Heart Is, but for those who have aged since they last read a Billie Letts book they will find this book appealing. Not knock-yours-socks-off better than Where the Heart Is, but a very pleasant read, and a decent enough mystery.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 64 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Shoot the Moon at TWBookmarks.com

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"Where the Heart Is"

(reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 10, 1998)

by Billie Letts

Novalee Nation is seventeen, seven months pregnant and on her way to California with her boyfriend, Willy Jack. She's dreaming about living in a home without wheels, he's secretly scheming to cut off a finger to land an insurance claim. But she requests one too many pit stops and Novalee finds herself stranded at a Wal-Mart in the town of Sequoyah, Oklahoma with $7.77. (Sevens are just unlucky for her.) So she sits and waits, knowing Willy Jack is gone, but not knowing what else to do. Then the magic begins. The first people she meets and the first words she hears shape her experiences for years to come.

First there is Sister Husband who mistakes her for a woman named Ruth Ann, gives her a Welcome Wagon basket and invites her to visit. Then, she meets photographer Moses Whitecotton, the blackest man she's ever met. He gives her a complimentary baby album and advice to name her baby something that will withstand all the bad times and hurt. And finally she meets Native American Benny Goodluck, a twelve year old kid helping his dad with his nursery business. He gives Novalee a buckeye tree for luck. As she meets each, she captures their image with her Polaroid camera.

The first night was by accident. Still not knowing what she would do, she's looking at baby clothes as the store closing message broadcasts over the Wal-Mart speakers. In a panic, Novalee runs to the Wal-Mart bathroom as she feels bile rise. After awhile she emerges to a dark store. (Apparently no motion detectors go off as she walks the dark store, but maybe store security was not so sophisticated in 1987.) And thus she spends her first night in her new home.

This book is a light read, with easy humor. The premise of making Wal-Mart a home is precious and somehow so American. It's a friendship story and a love story, that showcases the goodness of people. Considering this is an Oprah Book Club selection, it is surprising how light it is, almost like a fairy tale. It was probably picked since it shows that that not all poor, single mothers must continually have bad happen to them especially if given a supportive community. I also like the way that reading books is almost a magic wand for Novalee, with reading, self-education, if not self-actualization, is not far behind. Novalee and those around her do experience periodic set backs, but the message is clear, let go of what's bad and hold onto the good around you. In the end even a lowlife like Willy Jack has to learn this lesson.

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 1259 reviews

Read an excerpt of Where the Heart Is at TWBookmarks.com



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About the Author:

Billie Letts (photo by Dewy Dougless)Billie Letts grew up as an only child of young parents in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was always surrounded by good friends, neighbors and relatives. She first lighted on the idea of writing when after doing a book report in fourth grade on God's Little Acre, she realized the power of the "'language arts."

When she was thirty, married and with two sons, she was close to graduating from college, and to starting her career as an English teacher. Up until that point, her husband Dennis was making $300 a month teaching at a college in eastern Oklahoma. During the summer they would move back to his home town to work odd jobs. Then, Dennis was offered an opportunity as a Fulbright lecturer in Copenhagen, Denmark so off they went where her education was accelerated by the people she met. When they returned to the States, she finished her English degree at Southeast Missouri State and she began teaching. In 1975, 125 Vietnamese refugees were sent to Southeastern and she began to teach English as a second language.

Twenty years later her husband Dennis had already retired and had started acting in films. Her sons were grown and each with creative careers. And Billie Letts was still dreaming of becoming a "real" writer. At the age of 55, she went to a writers conference in New Orleans where she had an opportunity to meet with Literary Agent Elaine Markson, a reward for signing up early. This brief encounter turned into a opportunity to send Ms. Markson her "Tales from Wal-Mart" stories - one with a note about a title called "Where the Heart Is," saying the story wouldn't let her go. Elaine Markson suggested it might be the beginning of a novel. It was. It was published in 1995, making Billie Letts a real writer and winner of the Walker Percy Award and the 1996 Oklahoma Book Award.

She still lives in Oklahoma with her husband, Dennis, where she teaches Creative Writing at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

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