Friday, March 09, 2007

Born on the Bayou: The Novels of Kimberly Willis Holt

In the novels of Kimberly Willis Holt, the setting itself, usually the low country of Cajun Louisiana and East Texas, is almost a character in its own right. The land is soft and warm, but times are hard and opportunities are limited for her young characters. Often their futures turn on happenstance--a supportive relative or step-father, a job lost or found, a caring teacher, a book from the local library, a glance from a future husband or wife. The details of daily life in this mostly bygone world are beautifully woven into the story with skillful selectivity and obvious love for the region.

In My Louisiana Sky, her first novel, Tiger Parker is excluded and scorned by the other girls because of her retarded parents, but she does find a place for herself playing baseball with her friend Jesse and the other boys. When her grandmother, who has been her real guardian and best friend, dies suddenly, Tiger has to choose between the familiar but limited world of her parents and her hometown or the upwardly mobile world of her Aunt Dorie Kay in the big city.

Mister and Me tells the story of Jolene Jasmine Johnson, who, happy with her hardscrabble but loving life with her widowed mother and grandfather, suddenly has to deal with the appearance of Leroy Redfield, a huge, kindly suitor for her mother's attentions. Filled with jealousy and fearful of change, Jolene fights back against Leroy until his patience and generosity win her heart as well as that of her mother.

Holt's most recent book, Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family, begins with Marie McGee and her children driving from the Texas Panhandle back to Bayou du Large in Louisiana. Deserted by her husband, her farm destroyed by the Dust Bowl drought, Marie throws herself on the mercy of her father Antoine, whom she defied to marry her husband. Her fourteen-year-old daughter Rose is compelled to quit school and take a job driving a bookmobile in the backwoods. Rose does find a measure of fulfillment, a place for herself, in the tiny town of Houma, marrying Luther Harp and raising two children. The novel then moves on to the late childhood of Rose's son Merle Henry, then his eighth-grade daughter Annabeth, and finally Rose's great-grandson Kyle Koami, a somewhat spoiled upper-middle-class boy of thirteen, whose summer job in a library begins his own process of maturation. The family's story comes full circle as his Great-grandmother Rose realizes her dream of publishing a book, appropriately named Books on the Bayou.

Holt won the 1999 National Book Award for her book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. In this book the main character, Toby, still grieving over the desertion of his mother, has his own center of gravity changed when Zachary Beaver, the 443-pound "World's Fattest Boy" comes to town. When Zachary's manager leaves him stranded in an Airstream trailer, Toby realizes that Zachary's problems are greater than his own.

In her 2001 novel Dancing in Cadillac Light, the title is really representative of the theme of the book. The small town where Jaynell lives is acutely aware of social class. Jaynell's family is respectable but treated like poor relations by her ostentatious Aunt Loveda. In turn, Jaynell is both scornful and fearful of the "white trash" Lily Belle Pickens because Jaynell senses that her father's dead end job is the only thing between her family and a similarly impoverished life. When Jaynell's Grandpap impulsively buys a Cadillac (using its headlights as a spotlight for Jaynell's sister to dance in) and gives the family homeplace to the Pickens family just before his death, Jaynell comes to understand why he did it, because, as she says, "Maybe because he knew what it was like to be shunned. We all did."

Kimberly Holt's novels are gentle, skillfully nuanced stories of young adolescents trying to figure out how best to play the hand dealt them in their time and place.

Post Note: My eleven-year-old granddaughter can't forgive Kimberly Holt for not writing a sequel to My Louisiana Sky. There is, however, a movie My Louisiana Sky which appears not to have gotten any bad reviews and which might satisfy someone who wants to see more of Tiger Parker. Aside from a bit too much makeup on the actors, the trailer looked pretty good. If you have seen the movie, please let us have your comments.

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  • I'm adding these to my list of books to look for - they sound great though my kids are a little young yet.

    Off topic - what do you think about abridged books (a la "Great Illustrated Classics") for young readers. We've found them very valuable as an introduction to good books - not a substitute. But I see more criticism than praise for these sorts of books.

    By Anonymous Margaret, at 9:35 AM  

  • In the best of all possible worlds, we all should read the original of every classic. In the real world, I had a few of those "classics" in my K-4 library. Not many (or any) kids on that level will read Frankenstein or Jane Eyre in the original. I hope those who did read the abridged versions read the full text versions sometime later. But if not, at least they knew the books enough to put them in the context of English literature later.
    The fear is that the child will never read the full version at the age when it's most meaningful. But then, they may never read it at all if they wait (unless it's on a required list later.) A lot depends upon the skill of the abridger! This series seems to be reasonably well done.

    You might try checking out the original and picking a few good passages to read aloud while the child is reading the abridged version. It's a judgment call, and not an easy one.

    By Blogger GTC, at 12:35 PM  

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