Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Billie Standish (the book and the girl) Needs Some Love

Billie Standish Was Here by Nancy Crocker
5Q 3P J/S (mature subject matter, including a rape, makes this a book for older/mature readers)

This is an absolutely beautifully written book that I suspect will not get the attention it deserves. At this point, it's on my shortlist of the best YA books of the year. I would not hesitate to recommend it to adult readers as well as teens. However, it's a book that will be best appreciated by readers who enjoy characterization and setting, rather than those who prefer fast-moving action. I don't think what I say here truly spoils the book. It all happens in the first fifty or so pages. The book is about the journey, not the individual stops made along the way. But you may disagree, so please be forewarned that this review reveals two major events. If you prefer to read something that is more circumspect, check this review/interview from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. (This review, from Big A, little a, is the one that got me interested in reading the book. But be aware that this review also gives away those two plot points.)

Billie Standish knows exactly where she stands in her parents' lives. It's pretty clear when your name is William Marie Standish that a girl wasn't what they hoping for. The fact that they rarely talk to her and leave her alone for hours at a time just reinforces their lack of interest. But the morning that eleven-year-old Billie wakes up to find the town deserted really hammers it home. It's not until the old lady who lives across the street tells her that the levee is expected to break and flood the town that she has any idea of the danger she's in. Miss Lydia explains that the only people left are Billie and her parents and Miss Lydia and her son. And her parents never gave her even as much as a warning of what to do if trouble came. Miss Lydia takes pity on Billie and invites her to come to lunch. As Billie says, she'd rather have gone to church in shoes two sizes too small. She's no good at chitchat in the first place, but having to make conversation with someone who could remember when God was a boy? Oh, no.

But Miss Lydia insists, and Billie gives in. It's not long before Billie is over at Miss Lydia's most of every day, doing chores for her and in exchange learning about cooking and crochet and the old days of Miss Lydia's youth. She basks in the feeling of being welcomed and liked. As the weeks pass, Billie realizes she's made her first friend.

The one fly in the ointment is Miss Lydia's son, Curtis. Curtis gives Billie the creeps. She doesn't like the way he treats his mother and she doesn't like the way he looks at her. She knows Curtis's reputation, and she knows that he once killed a girl in a drunk driving accident. But she doesn't know just how bad he can be until the day he brutally rapes her. One horror follows another when Miss Lydia discovers what has happened and takes the law into her own hands. She has seen her son destroy one girl's life. She's damned if she's going to allow him to destroy another.

It is 1968, and rape is a shameful secret that is never discussed. And, of course, neither of them can ever tell what Miss Lydia did. As close as they had been, their secrets draw them even closer together. It is Miss Lydia who helps her deal with the aftermath, sharing her own equally traumatic experiences and assuring her that in time, she will be able to trust, and even love, again. The only person she can bear to be near is Miss Lydia. But when fifth grade starts in the fall, Billie has to go. School has never been her favorite place. The teachers are bad, the girls are clique-y, and she has always been the odd person out. But here, too, Billie finds an unexpected friend. Harlan knows as soon as she enters the room that something bad happened to her over the summer, though he never asks what. He is just there for her in his own quiet way. And soon the twosome becomes a threesome.

Billie Standish Was Here covers years in Billie's life. It is not a book about rape. It is a book about forgiveness and understanding, but most of all, it is a book about the healing power of love and the saving power of friendship. This is a book to be savored and reread often.


I loved this book for many reasons, but I fell in love with its voice and humor. Here are some quotes chosen because they tell as much about Billie as they do about the person she's describing:

For a long time I was mostly invisible. That was okay, though. Once you've figured out you can't do anything right it's just good sense not to call undue notice your way. Why step out of the shadows and get yelled at for blocking somebody's light?

Nothing much bigger than a silent fart can get past the neighbors in a town this size, though, so I suppose I was looked after in a way.

About her mother:
I could see her with my eyes closed, slicing the air with her hip bones and elbows as she crossed me off the list in her head and moved on. Another chore taken care of.

Describing Curtis:
...his manners were neat almost to the point of finicky. Outside of TV, I had never seen anyone raise their pinky as they lifted their glass and I never could have imagined it with a dirty fingernail...For some reason, I remembered the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood," who put on clothes and talked and was a good enough imitator to pass for a human being.

Describing her teacher:
There just doesn't seem to be enough of a person there to account for half of a couple.

Discovering love:
I don't believe in love at first sight. It might make for an easy shortcut if somebody's writing a movie, but in real life I think it's nothing more than hormones performing a parlor trick. I have come to believe that real love is like learning to read, one letter at a time, sounding things out until it all comes together. It takes time to build, step after step. And I know that was the exact moment Harlan climbed up that first step for me.

About Miss Lydia:
She left me knowing who I am without looking into anyone's mirror.

Printz Committee, are you listening?

Hooray for the Cybils Awards, which selected Billie Standish as one of the finalists in the YA Fiction category.

I have also posted a booktalk for this book. If you like it and use it, I'd love to know how it went over with your group.

(This post was edited slightly on 5/1/08 to reflect the Cybil Award nomination.)

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Agree? Disagree? Something you'd like to say in response? Feedback is welcome! Just keep it on topic, please. And if you found one of my booktalks and used it, I'd love to know how it worked for you.