Billie Standish is Coming in Billie Standish Was Here

h1 May 29th, 2007 by jules

“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.”

— Billie Marie in Billie Standish Was Here by Nancy Crocker

Nancy Crocker, author of the 2006 picture book Betty Lou Blue (illustrated by Boris Kulikov and reviewed here at
7-Imp by Yours Truly), has a new novel coming to a shelf near you this June (published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). This is her first novel, an emotionally compelling YA story about the intense and profoundly powerful ability of one person to shape the course of a young girl’s life. And if this is the first novel that springs from the mind of Nancy Crocker, I can hardly wait to see what she brings us next.

Page one brings us these lines, packing an emotional punch and instantly bringing to us in lucid, no-nonsense prose our protagonist’s primary dilemma: She has no one. If she’s not looking in the mirror, she feels as if she’s not really there . . .

My name is Billie Standish. William Marie Standish.

It’s pretty clear what my parents’ expectations were . . .

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?

Besides, my mama’s always had the kind of temper that gets the nearest dog kicked once in a while just for being there. Being invisible had its benefits.

It’s the summer of 1968 in the small town of Cumberland, Missouri, and Billie — from whose perspective the entire novel is told — is eleven years old. Not only does she not register in her parents’ radar on any level whatsoever (other than providing her food and shelter, as if she’s simply a pet to feed), but the town, way past its heyday, suddenly seems even lonelier than normal after a long period of “bone-soaking rain.” School has ended for the summer. Daily, Billie finds herself alone in her room, as usual, her parents never there. When they are there, she is ashamed and afraid to speak up, doing so making her feel flat-out strange (after her mother makes one particularly hateful comment to Billie, she winces: “When she caught me off guard she could still make me wonder just when it was that she decided to stop taking care of me altogether”). After venturing out one day, she sees and hears no one, wondering why the town seems abandoned and feeling as if she might shrink. As she’s about to turn back for home, she sees and speaks to the neighbor across the street, Lydia Jenkins (“{s}he looked like every grandma in the world”) and learns that the town members are afraid the levee may break. Though everyone else seems to be off working to shore up levees against the river, Billie’s parents, Lydia tells her, are still working in the field every day, as always, Billie’s father having remembered that when the levee broke in ’51, there was enough time to sandbag before the water got to town.

Let me say now that one of the things I loved about this novel was how Crocker will have you thinking that you are heading in one particular direction as a reader, but then she takes you in an entirely unexpected one, though never to be purposefully coy and never in the name of ostentatious literary subterfuge. I truly thought — at least momentarily — that perhaps Crocker was going to take readers on a journey through the summer of a girl whose parents (indeed, whose whole town) had literally abandoned her, but then Crocker brings them all back. Using the town’s temporary abandonment to not only show us the utter disregard Billie’s parents have for her (it was only Lydia who bothered to explain to her what exactly was going on), she also gives us the honor of witnessing the introduction of Billie to Lydia (who affectionately come to call one another “Miss Lydia” and “Billie Marie”).

Now, here comes the tricky part: I do not want to give away any spoilers, though this isn’t a plot-heavy book (as opposed to the resplendent characterizations and symbolism, for instance). In fact, Crocker places the novel’s two big, dramatic plot points at the beginning of the novel and before we even reach page sixty. Let’s suffice it to say that, as the book jacket will tell you, tragedy befalls Billie, a tragedy unmistakably linked to Miss Lydia, and Miss Lydia takes it upon herself to aid Billie in her time of crisis in a most dramatic way. A lot of other authors would have placed the second big plot point at the climax or even close of a book, which would not have made the book stand out from any other novel purporting to be a rather “gritty,” “heart-tugging” “coming-of-age story” in a small town (you know all those labels) about overcoming abuse. Wisely, Crocker leaves well over one-half of the novel for a full focus on the relationship between Miss Lydia and Billie Marie that spans several of Billie’s teenage years (to be sure, though, there are more plot turns and more of Crocker keeping us on our toes, wondering what exactly the wreckage of Billie’s tragedy will reveal and bring about in her life) and shows us how such a profound friendship can rescue a person.

And here is precisely what I love: the boldness of Crocker to hand us this intimate look at the relationship between Miss Lydia and Billie Marie (and Harlan, another character introduced half-way through the novel, a school mate of hers, who happens to be the second person in Billie’s life to ever show her compassion). This is the pulsing, throbbing heart of the novel, and Crocker does this without any apology for the lack of further gasp-inducing plot points (which she could have easily thrown in). In other words, this novel has an unabashed, never-histrionic heart at its center, which makes it a compelling page-turner. In the hands of a clumsier author, this could have failed miserably and made the book intolerably boring. But what really makes it work is that every. word. of. it. rings. true. Just when you wonder if, on the next page, Crocker will take us to Schmaltz-ville (though I could tell immediately that she’s not one for visiting places like that), she tempers it all with some humor, some tension, and always with abundant honesty.

Right. So, I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers, simply so that this beauty of a book can unfold for you as it did for me. But I will say that it was a joy to read about the growing releationship between Billie, Lydia, and Harlan. Since “most of the time {school} was like dancing in a building full of plodding zombies” (and for another vital reason having to do with a particular redemption Miss Lydia longs for in her life), Miss Lydia takes it upon herself to school Billie Marie and Harlan during summer and after school hours (“{m}y brain was getting more of a workout than it ever had at home or in school. I began to wonder if those places were mainly teaching me not to think . . . {s}he was {so} good at turning an old idea inside out and revealing its stupidity . . . {t}hat woman had a knack for asking the one question that could nail you to the spot and make you question everything you thought you’d decided”), even teaching them about the women’s liberation movement:

I was thoroughly and utterly appalled—the conversations I’d overheard at home about hairy-legged bra burners were even more acid than those about colored people. I had not formed an independent opinion of my own yet, but I knew without any consideration whatsoever that I didn’t want to be discussing bras around Harlan. Or any body parts that needed shaving.

As the three of them watch Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, Billie Marie notes,
“{o}ut in the middle of nowhere, we were connected by live television transmission to the brotherhood of man. And in that one little room the three of us were connected to one another by something even stronger than blood.” There’s so much more brilliance here that I’ll leave for you to read: The relationship that develops between Harlan and Billie Marie as a result of the relationship between the three of them is altogether beautiful.

It probably goes without saying that those who have a particular fondness for stories about elderly people and young people and those list-lovers (“Ten Books About Old People and Teens”) will be especially attracted to this book. But I don’t want to pigeonhole the book in that way. If someone had described it in this manner to me — “a heart-warming story about an elderly woman and the relationship she builds with a teen girl” — I might have written it off in my mind as yet another story to add to the Patricia Polacco-type canon. Not that there’s anything wrong with those stories; I just might have thought, eh, we have enough of those. How will this be different? But Crocker’s distinct setting; rich language (the metaphor that serves as the final three words of the novel, placed elsewhere in the novel as well, is exceptionally moving); her characters so real they jump off the page, including her refusal to make anyone — even secondary characters — one-dimensional (Billie Marie coming to understand her mother’s behavior a bit, if not forgiving it: “I thought about those romance novels Mama read and wondered just how far she was living from her idea of happily ever after. And I wondered if pure instinct had showed her the safest place to put the blame was on my head”); humor; and much more make Billie’s transformation so real and so vivid — and make this title really stand out. After one of her first days with Miss Lydia, she realizes, “I was almost asleep much later when I remembered I hadn’t needed to look in the mirror all day,” even coming to feel sorry for her parents and relinquish some of her anger. For all these reasons and more, I found it hard to say goodbye to the characters in which I had become so emotionally invested.

And let me tell you about the ending, particularly the final three pages: I felt privileged to read it, as if someone had handed me a gift. How Miss Lydia leaves Billie Marie “knowing who I am without looking into anybody’s mirror” by teaching her what it means to rise up and fight back and what it means when Billie Marie says, “{Miss Lydia} had always allowed me my dignity even though I was just a kid. The least I could do was return the favor” is beyond touching. I felt like I had been blessed, reading precisely how Billie Marie learns to be “sure enough of myself to be sure of Miss Lydia’s friendship.”

I think there are a lot of authors who have tried to pull off a book like this, one that overflows with compassion and humanity, but I haven’t read a novel in a long time that has gotten it quite this right.

* * * * * * *

{This was an advance proof review copy; the title will be on the shelves in June} . . .

{Oh and Nancy Crocker started her career as a singer and appeared with Loretta Lynn at age thirteen, according to her bio. This is merely a Fun Fact That Has Nothing To Do With the Book But Which I Find Interesting} . . .

12 comments to “Billie Standish is Coming in Billie Standish Was Here

  1. Wow, jules. Thanks for busting this one out of its pigeonhole. I read the bland description over at Amazon, and thought: whaaat? Now I’m lining up at the counter for my turn…

    BTW, I think that last Fun Fact you added must mean something…I’m going to be looking for connections. I’m so jealous though…to be a singer and a writer? Please don’t tell me she does Shakespeare in summer rep, or I’ll have to lie down and not get up.

  2. Thanks, Sara.

    I don’t know if Crocker still sings or not!

    I think you’d love this book. Somehow I really needed this story right now — about a girl who can manage to redeem herself, thanks to friendship, thanks to finally being noticed. I dunno, I love how it’s just what it is. No fancy-schmancy tricks on Crocker’s part, not trying to be inventive. I love how it’s permeated with hope but without being in the slightest bit overdone or heavy-handed. It’s simply beautiful.

    I keep getting kicked offline (still), so I better go before I get kicked off again. I’m about to pop an artery (I WORK FROM HOME!! UGGH!) . . .

  3. Hey girls, you’ve been tagged !!

  4. Note on the cover it look very similar to Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes…don’t ya think?

  5. Uh, Boy (do you have a name?), sure, the cover is similar to Olive’s Ocean.

    Perhaps it needs a different cover and perhaps the book’s back-flap bio is bland (as Sara mentioned), but I hope that after folks read it, they’ll come back here and discuss what they think of the writing.

    Crossing fingers . . . would love to hear others’ thoughts.

  6. Regarding “Billie Standish was Here”….I really enjoyed this book. Billy Marie is such an endearing character and I absolutely related to her, having had my own very sheltered childhood where I felt invisible most of the time. If only I’d had a mentor like dear Miss Lydia in my life while growing up!

    I, too, love the descriptions of Junior High School, a time where I never felt I fit in with the crowd. We had teachers that were too old to be there, and the majority that just could not inspire you to want to learn. My favorite is also where Jr. High is described as “most of the time like dancing in a building full of plodding zombies.” When I read that, I could see and remember myself walking between classes, all my books in hand and “nary a thought in my head!”

    It’s amazing to “feel” just how much the young girl learns from the older woman in a span of about six years, spawned out of the tragedy that bonded them together. In the end, Billie gives her all to Lydia in such a sacrificial way. (The things we do for love….)

    My favorite passage?
    “I remember after Grandma Wharton’s visitation Daddy had little red dashes on his white shirtsleeve from Mama’s fingernails digging in and drawing blood. Old Man Tully stood in front of his wife’s casket like a guard dog at her funeral, fairly snarling at anybody who came close. And you never knew whose relativies would get into a shouting match right there over their dead body.
    Grief seems to come down to individual style about as much as dancing does.”

    Great book!

  7. Oh.. and one more thing… Jules had her very own little-ol-lady friend while growing up in Franklin, TN.! Fess up, Jules.

    Somehow I cannot see you and Mrs. Rickerson laughing until you almost peed yourself!


  8. Hi, Julie’s mom!

  9. […] Billie Standish Was Here (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers; June 2007; reviewed back here in May) and will be featuring an interview with […]

  10. “Billie Standish was here” is a book i’ll never forget its always wonderful to have somebody share your deepest most hurtful secrets when all the wieght is just on your shoulders you’ll buckle form the hurt and pain of it all. i would love to of had somebody as great as Miss Lydia by me when things get rough i loved this book, it was honestly a terrific read.

  11. Billie Standish was an aawfully boring book. I’d recomend NOT reading that.

  12. […] Billie Standish was Here is Nancy Crocker’s first novel. I have been reading this book over and over again and I just can’t put it down. It very well could be the most amazing book in the world. (my own opinion). I have read finished the 280 page book this month. I have also read about 30 pages of another book called Knight to the Hill Country so I have met the requirements for the month of March. […]

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