Greetings From The Sleepy Time Motel

h1 May 13th, 2008 by jules

I don’t know about you, but I find the news of late very sad and quite unsettling. I have to wonder what kind of world my children are going to live in when they themselves are adults. I don’t want to be one of those people who is so out-of-touch with current events, but oftentimes it’s hard to even take it all in anymore. Eisha and I recently had a conversation about all the apocalyptic movies we’ve seen of late, too, Eisha joking that she’s seen enough recently that she pretty much feels like she needs to get ready for the end of the world NOW. And then I had to up and read Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Dead and the Gone, which is just as mercilessly stark and honest (about, you know, the end of the world when the moon’s too close to the earth) as its prequel (more on that later perhaps).

I’m also not one of those people who refuses to read books with sad endings, no matter the current state of world affairs, but I will say that I’m glad I was reading Barbara O’Connor’s Greetings From Nowhere (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2008) when this news story broke. As well as this one. Not necessarily because reading a story with a happy ending was a necessity at that time, but because Barbara’s story reminds us that, no matter our particular pains and fears and losses, we have each other to lean on. And because, at its core, it’s a story of hope. Might sound corny the way I put it, but . . . well, O’Connor does it up much better than I explained it.

Agnes (“Aggie”) Duncan lives with her little black cat, Ugly, in the old, dilapidated Sleepy Time Motel, nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains in Shawnee Gap, North Carolina, which hasn’t had visitors in nearly three months and which she once co-owned with her late husband, Harold. Still grieving for Harold, she ambles around in all her heartache—yet with a determined spirit—but finally (yet with great hesitation) decides to put the motel up for sale. Meanwhile, Willow Dover—who lives with her father, Clyde—is nursing her own broken heart. Her mother has left the family, and Willow pines for her and the life they all once had together as a family. Willow goes so far as to write a pretend letter from her mother, announcing that she misses them so much, she’ll be returning home, and she mails it to herself (But, “{y}ou can fool a person. You can fool a dog. You can fool a cat or a horse or a teacher or a friend. But you cannot ever fool a heart,” Willow learns). And Willow’s father, also eager for a change, decides to set his sights on purchasing one Sleepy Time Motel, thus uprooting Willow and life as she knows it in small-town Hailey, North Carolina.

Over in Calhoun, Tennessee, one Miss Loretta Murphy, living with her adoptive parents, receives a mysterious package in the mail from someone in Indiana, telling her that Loretta’s birth mother passed away and had asked her to send all her possessions to Loretta: “She was a good person. She was my friend” is all the sender had written. Loretta, possessed with a naturally sunny personality and buoyant optimism, savors the possessions, particularly the charm bracelet. “Every single one of them is something that comes from a place,” Loretta’s adoptive mother tells her. That seals the deal for Loretta: She and her parents decide to visit some of the places on the bracelet, beginning with the Smoky Mountains. Two guesses as to which motel they stay in.

And when we meet Kirby Tanner and his mother, they are stranded on the side of the road, en route to a reform school for troubled boys in the Smoky Mountains, a “{t}otal disciplinary environment,” the brochure says. Kirby’s mother, bemoaning the fact that Kirby’s “sorry excuse for a father” couldn’t drive him to school, tells her son it’s his “last chance to straighten up and fly right . . . You mess up this time . . . you ain’t coming back to my house.” Eventually, their car refuses to cooperate altogether, and the two head up the road, looking for the nearest lodging. Three guesses as to which motel they stumble upon in their journey.

Yup, you guessed it: Willow and her father, Loretta and her parents, and Kirby and his mother end up with Aggie in the shabby, run-down Sleepy Time Motel. O’Connor tells the story in a consistent third-person point-of-view but alternates chapters from Aggie to Willow to Loretta to Kirby. It’s Willow and Aggie who first truly connect, Willow tuning in quickly to Aggie’s grief and real reluctance to leave the old hotel where all her memories with Harold lie:

The Sleepy Time Motel had belonged to Aggie and Harold. The ten little rooms. The sign and the swimming pool. The bird feeders, the flagpole, the garden.

All of those things had been theirs.

But now Harold was gone and Willow’s father had “closed the deal,” so all that stuff belonged to him. Willow could see happiness all over her father and sadness all over Aggie.

Something about that seemed just plain wrong to Willow.

So—while Loretta and her parents visit destinations in the Smoky Mountains which she believes her mother once visited and she looks for “that last missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle {to snap} into place,” making herself whole again, and while closed-up Kirby slowly warms up to perky Loretta, shy and quiet Willow, and the elderly Aggie, all the while learning what it means to feel noticed and to feel loved—Aggie “shake{s} her head in amazement at how a little ole thing,” how one simple kindness from a stranger “could change things so much.” Aggie also comes to her own understanding of her grief and whether or not she truly needs to leave the motel or stay.

And that’s all I’ll tell you about the plot, because—should you decide to let this gratifying story warm your news-weary ‘ol heart, like I did—I want its wonders to unfold for you. Fans of O’Connor won’t be surprised to hear the characters are so well-developed, they leap from the page (and with what School Library Journal calls O’Connor’s “signature Southern charm”). I think the bit of review I read that nails the book’s primary (of many) appeals was from The Christian Science Monitor: “Readers will come to realize that everyone has something worth paying attention to, if you dig deep enough.”

Highly recommended and aimed officially at the aged 9-12 crowd, but a story that will do anyone’s heart some good in these crazy, wonked-up times. I sound like Grumpy Old Man again, but there you have it.

You can read an excerpt here. Enjoy.

11 comments to “Greetings From The Sleepy Time Motel”

  1. I think you hit it right: news-weary hearts need books that give a bit of a lift. Thanks for pointing this out.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful review, Jules. This book is in my TBR pile, but I’m moving it to the top!

    We really do need books that offer hope! The recent natural disasters are so hard to process. I can’t even wrap my brain around “tens of thousands” dead.

  3. Me either, Jama. It’s terribly, terribly sad.

  4. The world is nearly unbearable right now. I’ll check this book out! Thanks for the review, Jules.

  5. I think I might even be uplifted a little by the review, so the book should do me good. It’s truly difficult to swallow all the real stuff out there, idn’t it??

  6. That sounds lovely, and like exactly the sort of book I’ll want to read next. Octavian just isn’t helping me with my current dire worldview.

  7. I just came back from IRA where I saw tons of new books and recent book. This book was the ONLY one I brought back home.

  8. I’ll have to look for this one. I agree with Liz–I was uplifted by your review! Great timing.

  9. […] from Nowhere by Barbara O’Connor: This one was recommended by Jules at 7-Imp, and it didn’t disappoint. This was a simple, straightforward story about a great cast of […]

  10. Well, it was hailing here, and I needed some sunshine, so I started reading…and went straight on through to the satisfying ending. I think Barbara is the master of the right detail at the right time…”That’s ruby!” and keys on cuphooks and the taste of a raw bean. Plus, it made me think of taffy and Dollywood and kudzu and foldout maps and now I’m all homesick…

  11. So glad you liked it, Sara. I convinced my mother-in-law to read it, and she pretty much had the same reaction. So good.

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