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WORDS BY HEART by Ouida Sebestyen



Pub Date: June 7th, 1979
ISBN: 044041346X
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown

Lena Sills proves at the start that she knows the words of the scriptures by heart, but taking them to heart as her father does is a lesson she finds harder to learn. In the opening scene, with the whole town assembled, Lena wins the school scripture-reciting contest over Winslow Stearns, the favorite, and the ensuing embarrassment gives her a hint of what it means to be the only black family in a pioneering Kansas community of 1910. Then she is disconcerted that her Biblequoting father, Ben, who admires ""that loving man"" Walt Whitman, seems unhappy with her fierce urge to ""be better than other people."" Worse yet, the Sills return from the contest to a dead dog and a knife stabbed into their fresh-baked bread--a message, they're sure, from sullen Tater Haney whose drunken, shiftless father had been fired from the job Lena's father took. There is more trouble when ritzy, cantankerous old Mrs. Chism, from whom both families rent, gives Ben the odd jobs Haney had been too lazy to get around to. Tension builds and there is a night of spooky terror before Lena finds her father dying, shot by Tater; but meanwhile, also, talks between Lena and Ben plus his gentle, firm example have prepared her to carry out the difficult duty he sets for her. Sebestyen makes Lena's world and her feelings intensely real, and her growing into her father's principles touching and credible. Every character is sharply drawn, and even Ben's saintly conviction is made impressive--though his dying, last-breath concern for Tater is almost too much. Perhaps you have to share Ben's faith to be satisfied with Lena's choice of mercy over justice, and with the ending which has community members groping forth their condolences and Mr. Haney responding in kind to her staggering act of charity.