Today I am reviewing a historical fiction story set in 1910. Words By Heart, by author Ouida Sebestyen, follows the story of Lena, a twelve-year-old black girl living in the west with her family in a town with no other black people. The book was first copyrighted in 1968.
When Lena wins first place in a Bible verse memory contest, beating out Winslow Starnes who everyone believed would win, life begins to change.
This is a coming of age book. It is a book that on first glance would appear to be written for children, but I recommend it for adults only. It runs along the lines of To Kill A Mockingbird, for comparison.
I love the voice of an adult inserted into books written about children, that give life advice to the reader. Lena’s father, Ben, is that person in this book. He had planned to be a preacher, but when that felled to happen, he worked as a hired hand for an overbearing woman, Mrs. Chism, picking cotton with his wife and children and doing anything else Mrs. Chism commanded them to do.
When a chilling message is left behind on their kitchen table (a knife stuck through a loaf of bread, through their white tablecloth, and into the wood) Lena felt it was her fault because she won the memory verse contest. Lena’s stepmom wants her dad to explain what is happening so Lena will not cause more trouble. Her dad had not told her before because he felt she was too young to know such things, but Claudie, her stepmom, feels she is old enough now.
He begins, “‘She’s right, there’s some things I haven’t told you. I hoped I wouldn’t have to. And some things I never will, because they’re past and ought to be put out of our memory to give room for better things.'” (p.20) There is so much wisdom in those words. Some things definitely need to stay in the past in our minds and be left there “to give room for better things.” Amen to that!!
Lena then asks— “‘Papa, is it wrong to want to be better than other people?'”
He replied, “‘Nobody’s better than anybody else. The Lord has a special need for all of us, or we wouldn’t be here. But the thing you want to strive for, always, is to be better than yourself. And we all fall short on that.'” (p. 22) There is so much depth to those words. We all have so much work to do— on ourselves.
Claudie explains to Lena what her papa is going through—”‘…your daddy has a life-and-death real worry to struggle with…. Your daddy is a good man — he believes the Lord meant it when He said to love your enemies and turn the other cheek to those that hurt you. What your daddy is struggling with in his soul right now is what he would do if somebody tried to hurt his family.'”(p.35)
More words of wisdom come through in Lena’s thoughts— “The work wasn’t hard — her tiredness was different from field-work tiredness. The strain came from feeling two ways about everything. It was more like being in a war without knowing for sure who was your enemy or your friend, or even what you were fighting about.” (p. 46) How often have you felt that way? These are important feelings to explore when dealing with difficult things in our lives.
And another amazing quote — “Then she knew why Papa was patient. He looked at everybody. He really stopped and looked, and saw inside.” (p.70)
And another Papa quote — “‘I want you to be the best you can be. Just so you remember that God don’t judge you by the number of stars you get.'” (p. 106) (* The stars were given for spelling correctly)
As Lena studied her school lessons on the Dark Ages she thought—”Since mankind began, it seemed like, one group always banded against another group that lived or looked or thought differently. Putting the different ones down to make themselves seem higher. It seemed that by now, people could have grown enough to understand and like each other. Or at least to be moved by what they saw of themselves in everybody else.” (p. 107)
The book is full of meaning and mostly uplifting until the end. It ends on a sad note. I enjoyed most of the book, but it left a feeling of heaviness as I read the last page. It is about doing the right thing. Loving others more than yourself. Being the kind of person Jesus shows us how to be in the Bible.
Another reason to not recommend this book for children is that Mrs. Chism uses curse words frequently. I cringe at curse words—it is so easy to get them in your head when you don’t want to. I do not think they add to the story. There are other ways to show a character is crusty without using unwholesome words that as Christians, we are to avoid.
A redeeming part of the book is that Lena’s dad follows in the steps of Jesus as he forgives others and encourages her to do the same.
After being beaten, tortured, mocked, spit on, represented unfairly, and forsaken by friends, Jesus prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) A preacher that I was listening to on Sunday pointed out that the thief that asked to be remembered (saved) did that after he heard Jesus asking forgiveness for his tormenters. Do you think that made a difference for the thief as he witnessed it? Did that make him want to align himself with someone who had the strength to do that?
Loving and forgiving others is the theme of this book.
If you enjoyed To Kill A Mockingbird, you would probably enjoy this book.
Thanks for the review, Jane. Really appreciate your thoughts.