HIGHER GROUND by Meredith Sue Willis
Kirkus Star


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As in her fine first novel, A Space Apart (1979), Willis tests the soft, cutting filaments of family love against the lure of that ""higher ground"" beyond: larger intimacies, exhilarating freedoms. Again, also, she probes the sunken, serpentine divisions between the small-town Establishment and those who don't measure up. Eleven-year-old Blair Ellen, only child of West Va. high school teachers who survived Depression poverty, knows that whatever decision Mother and Daddy make, ""they were just trying to make me the best possible girl I could be."" And somehow she senses that her summer friendship with the Odell children doesn't fit with this ideal: even though Mother says it's a good deed to befriend those ""poor children,"" it still feels ""abnormal."" After all, smooth, secretive India and Garland (who practices dancing like a teenager with such strange concentration) live on a mountain with no electricity--a home on top of the world, with ""a great swell of grass and sky."" So Blair Ellen decides that India and Garland will always be her special friends, and they will ""mean just what I want them to mean."" But, entering high school four years later, fairly pretty Blair Ellen is secure in popularity, good grades, teacher approval; and now the hill children--at first dressed ""wrong""--flicker in and out of her interest. She's drawn instead to the ""tough gloss"" of her neighbor Bunny (""no father and not very clean""), whom Blair Ellen--unconsciously manipulative--would like to ""save"" with the gift of her friendship. But Bunny, unsaved, elopes from her raw-nerved household at 17, so Blair Ellen eventually responds, sexually stirred, to Garland's curiously persistent need for her regard. (He sees through her, however: ""You're just playing around, aren't you?"") And finally, Blair Ellen, now married and living in Manhattan, returns for her tenth high school reunion, only to find that social guidelines have shifted and become more intricate--but on a return to the Odells' mountain (they've left), she sees new possibilities for union in a segmented human landscape. Not quite the perfect gem of A Space Apart--the high school section lags a bit--but Willis' breathtakingly subtle soundings of homes and small towns (where everything and nothing happens) reaffirm her as a writer of real consequence.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0965404307
Publisher: Scribners