Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt

I was lucky enough to hear Kimberly Willis Holt speak at the YA Literature Conference at Louisiana State University last summer. I read her books when I was in elementary and middle school, both Louisiana Sky and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, so it was fairly exciting to hear her talk about writing and her books during the conference. At a presentation at a Baton Rouge library, Willis Holt read an excerpt from a work in progress, which happened to be Dear Hank Williams. At the time, it was slated for publication in 2015, and it just came out a few months ago. 

Dear Hank Williams is an epistolary novel, although the letters are very one-sided: Tate P. Ellerbee and her classmates have been asked by their teacher to find a pen pal and write to him or her. Tate picks Hank Williams, since she routinely hears him singing on the radio as part of the Louisiana Hay Ride. She doesn't seem bothered that he doesn't write her back, but continues to tell him about her family and her life in Rippling Creek, Louisiana. It's just a few years since WWII ended (the book is set in 1948), and Tate's teacher's suggestion of the class writing to Japanese pen pals is not met favourably by everyone. Tate writes, "Mrs. Kipler's brains must have frizzled from her last perm. We just got out of a war with those folks. I'm not about to share my life with the enemy. I remember when I was four years old, the soldiers from Camp Claiborne marched past our house in the mornings. Aunt Patty Cake would have a pot of coffee ready for them. Before we saw them, we heard the stomp, stomp sounds of their boots pounding the road. When we did, we'd walk outside, Aunt Patty Cake with the coffee, Momma with the cups and cream, and me with the spoons."

She lives with her Aunt Patty Cake and her Uncle Jolly (they are brother and sister), who is consistently bringing home new women to date: "We know Uncle Jolly has had his heart broken when we discover sofa cushions scattered on the floor and Aunt Patty Cake's straight chair pointing legs up. He leaves a trail through the mess where he's staggered to his bedroom. Aunt Patty Cake calls it 'Jolly's Path of Heartbreak Destruction.'"

When Willis Holt spoke about the book, she said it was strongly influenced by her discovery of the Goree Girls, a women's singing group from Goree State Farm, a women's prison in Huntsville, Texas. They were popular, received fan mail, and got radio play. Tate's mother is a Goree Girl, although Tate pretends to Hank Williams that she is an actress in Hollywood. There are many secrets like these; Tate is an incredibly unreliable narrator. 

I didn't like Dear Hank Williams as much as Holt's other novels, mostly because there seemed to be so many surprised reveals that clashed with the truth as Tate told it. But the Louisiana setting, the epistolary format, and Tate's nuanced voice makes this book well worth the read. 

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