Ouida Sebestyen Essay - Critical Essays

Sebestyen, Ouida


Ouida Sebestyen 1924–

(Also writes under the pseudonym Igen Sebestyen) American novelist and short story writer.

Sebestyen's novels for young adults usually center on poor teenage protagonists who gain the maturity and understanding necessary to triumph emotionally over adversity. Critics often praise Sebestyen for the strength of her central characters, the poetry and realism of her diction, and for the optimistic vision of life that she presents in her work.

Sebestyen's best-known novel, Words by Heart (1979), is set in 1910 and is told by thirteen-year-old Lena, a black minister's daughter, who moves with her family to an all-white town. In the course of the book, Lena adopts her father's method of coping with the prejudice and violence her family encounters: "turning the other cheek." The book's title reflects Lena's journey from merely memorizing biblical verses to living by them, which is to know them "by heart." Words by Heart was acclaimed by many in the literary establishment and won a place on several "best books" lists. Concurrently, however, it was subject to harsh criticism from some who questioned the values which Sebestyen promoted, and she was accused of racism in portraying stereotypical black characters who are passive in the face of injustice and prejudice. Although Sebestyen's subsequent novels, Far from Home (1980) and IOU's (1982), received less critical attention than Words by Heart, critics were generally favorable in their assessments of these works.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 107.)

Kristin Hunter

[Sebestyen's Words by Heart], like life itself for Afro-Americans in the post-Bakke 1970s, is an anguish-provoking experience in backward time travel. Its sincerity is unquestionable, its eloquence seductive—but its message is even more regressive than the many setbacks from the gains of the '60s that blacks have suffered in this Second Reconstruction.

Appropriately, Words by Heart is set during the closing years of the First Reconstruction. In 1910, we travel with Lena, a 12-year-old memory whiz, and her family on a journey from hope to despair….

The most puzzling and distressing aspect of Lena's character development is that she begins as a proud fighter and ends as a model of meek Christian forbearance, exactly, as Claudie observes with resignation, like her saintly father. The Bible contains, along with everything else, counsel for both modes of behavior, making Lena's transformation from sword-wielder to cross-bearer especially difficult for this reader to accept. She has learned her verses under Papa Ben's tutelage, of course, but early in the book, to his reminder that "'The Lord commanded, Thou shalt not kill,'" she responds quickly, "But Papa, in the very next chapter Moses says anybody that smited a man and killed him shall surely die."

How Lena comes to learn Papa's favorite verses and not her own "by heart," in view of all the evils that beset her family, is unaccountable. One...

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Fran Moshos

What are the qualities of a moving story? Perhaps it is the recognition in our own hearts of certain human weaknesses and strengths; the truths we see in life that transcend the simple boundaries of age or time. Words By Heart … is a remarkable book about a young black girl, Lena Sills, and her family, as they journey from the still repressive South around the turn of the century to the promise of freedom in the West….

Words By Heart is filled with … common-sense wisdom. Lena is repeatedly made to see that she can triumph over her personal misfortunes, until they no longer have the power to keep her down. It is a book filled, too, with country paths and the hot summer sun. Finally, Words By Heart is a story of adventure and learning and the inescapable reality of death, as Lena and her family are threatened by small-town prejudices. There is so much honesty and hope in this delicate tale that one cannot help but be moved by the prophetic words of Lena's father, words he knew by heart: "Something always comes to fill the empty places. Something comes to take the place of what you lose."

Fran Moshos, in a review of "Words by Heart," in The New Republic, Vol. 180, No. 25, June 23, 1979, p. 37.

Dana G. Clinton

The most striking fact about Ouida Sebestyen's novel "Words By Heart" is how instantly it calls to mind Mildred D. Taylor's 1977 Newbery Award winner, "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry." In both novels, a young adolescent black girl, long sheltered by loving parents in a close-knit and hard-working family, must come to terms with the reality of prejudice which exists against her people. Both Cassie (of "Roll of Thunder") and Lena (of "Words By Heart") are extremely intelligent girls, the oldest children often responsible for watching over their younger siblings. Each has particularly strong ties to her father who tries both to protect her and to initiate her into an unfair social world, a world in which they can remain superior only by keeping their dignity. Family pride and the desire to be independent are motivating factors in the families' lives; in both books the family's situation is favorably compared to that of unlucky sharecroppers who will never have independence. Yet both books end on a note of mingled hope and despair and the inevitable unanswered question: why must anyone undergo such trials for the right to grow on this earth in peace with his fellow men?

In spite of these very basic similarities to an earlier novel, "Words By Heart" is a book of stature which should be considered a valuable addition to the developing body of novels for young readers which expose realistically the long struggle of black people to take their...

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Cynthia King

Though early signposts point to a classic black tragedy, a female "Sounder," ["Words By Heart", a] deceptively simple but strong first novel, is mostly about words—from the Bible, Walt Whitman and Ben Sills….

It is 1910. Though Ben has long since given up his ambition to be a preacher, he hopes that Lena will have a chance to use her talents and not have to learn to "know her place." But in this all-white Middle Western town to which he has brought his family—Lena, his second wife Claudie, and their three small children, Ben has taken drunken Henry Haney's job at the cotton gin. Haney's son Tater seethes, spies and threatens revenge….

Throughout the novel, the voice is Lena's. She listens to Ben and Claudie argue over her head; she hopes; she becomes angry; she learns to be afraid. Sometimes her voice rankles like that of an angry adolescent. Sometimes it strains, stretching credibility: "Events are blinks of time in endless time." Some of her metaphors are strained.

But sometimes, as in the beautiful contrapuntal passage during the Bible-recitation contest, in which verse and history and Lena's thoughts and memories are skillfully interwoven, Lena leaps to life, full of promise and confusion, as real as the words that astound or confound or dazzle her.

No small feat. The author—who grew up in the South and moved to West Texas, and is not black—has "aspired" bravely, reaching high with all her heart. Despite the transparent plot, and characters who state the novel's themes too bluntly, Ouida Sebestyen has written a many-layered book. She has wrapped a story with poetry, wrapped me with it, too, caught and held me, made me feel with Lena and Claudie and Ben. And then—in the last chapter, a kind of welcome coda—she shows her optimism, changing her characters from timid to heroic; vengeful to generous, pointing toward love, not cynicism, without painting black history white.

Cynthia King, in a review of "Words by Heart," in The New York Times Book Review, August 26, 1979, p. 34.

Paul Heins

When thirteen-year-old Salty Yeager [of Far from Home] realized that he and Mam, his great-grandmother, who lived together on the outskirts of a Texas town, were poverty-stricken, he decided to apply for his mother's old job in a shabby boardinghouse pretentiously entitled The Buckley Arms…. Although Salty, who helped with a variety of chores, gradually became acquainted with a nearby family of troublesome children, most of his attention was centered on the emotional concerns of the adults living in the boardinghouse. As time went on, the boy, convinced that Tom Buckley was his father, had to learn why the man could not publicly acknowledge him. The story, set in 1929, reflects the era; the language—often humorous—frequently makes use of contemporaneous phraseology. Even though Salty's constant but frustrated attempts to communicate with his father are presented in skillfully understated terms, an excessive proportion of the narrative is focused on the marital problems of the adults living in the boardinghouse. (pp. 60-1)

Paul Heins, in a review of "Far from Home," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LVII, No. 1, February, 1980, pp. 60-1.

Zena Sutherland

Salty [hero of Far from Home] was thirteen. He had no idea who his father was; his mother (a mute woman) was dead, as were his grandparents; he lived alone with his great-grandmother and they were facing eviction. He took the note his mother had left, telling him to go into town to the home of Tom and Babe Buckley…. [It develops that] Tom is his father and that the fact must be kept from Babe, who has had many miscarriages and who is loved and protected by her husband. This is not a childlike story, but should have some of the same kind of appeal that [Harper Lee's] To Kill a Mockingbird has had to many adolescent and pre-adolescent readers: a vividly created microcosm of society, an abundance of...

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Rudine Sims

Words By Heart is the latest book honored by the literary establishment even though it perpetuates negative images and stereotypes…. [It] has been honored for the excellence of the author's craft, but it is flawed because it presents an outsider's perspective on Black lives and fails to recognize the political, racial and social realities that shape the Black Experience in this country. And … it features the death of a "noble" Black man, that very expendable literary creation.

Based on a short story published in 1968, Words by Heart shares with other late sixties children's fiction about Blacks the implied purpose of raising the consciousness of white readers to racial injustice....

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Ouida Sebestyen's novel Words by Heart will strike a responsive chord in the hearts of anyone who has ever believed that mobility is achieved not by skin color but by hard work (the Puritan work ethic), God's favor (Full Gospel Businessmen's Association) or intelligence. All three elements are embodied in this tale of a young Black girl growing up in the all-white town of Bethel Springs….

By the end of the novel it is evident that Lena's "magic mind" has not won her any significant number of friends or increased her stature in the neighborhood or school. Ben's hard work and dependability earn him the hatred of his neighbors and eventually his murder. And what we are left with is God's favor,...

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Patricia Lee Gauch

It is risky for an author to tackle stock characters and stock situations in a novel. Take "Far From Home." Down-and-out orphan of deaf-and-dumb mother begs mother's former employer (and maybe lover) for room at failing boarding house only to meet aging prankster, pregnant bootlegger's wife and nosey neighborhood kid. Not only could this have ended up a stock story, it could have ended up a melodrama.

It didn't, largely because of an honest character named Salty….

At times the activity around Buckley Arms, a kind of 1920's Noah's ark, flips by like a penny movie. The prankster Hardy is forever clowning, Jo has her baby in Salty's room, Mam runs away, and a Fourth of July parade...

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Denise M. Wilms

Thirteen-year-old Stowe Garrett [of IOU's] shares a close relationship with his mother. It's been the two of them since his father left long ago, and they've forged a peaceful, independent life-style that seems worth their meager day-to-day existence. Annie Garrett has taught her son to be responsible and to think for himself, so when he gets a sudden phone call from relatives informing him that his seriously ill grandfather, who had cut Annie out of his life in grief and anger years ago, wants to see him, he keeps the news to himself…. Stowe eventually decides against visiting his grandfather, but Annie learns of the call and determines to go in hopes of reconciliation. The meeting never happens because Lee...

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Kirkus Reviews

Parent-child relationships appear to be a Sebestyen preoccupation,… [IOU's] is about nothing but the particularly close relationship between Stowe, 13, and his brave, wise, loving, financially-strapped mother…. More like a couple than a mother and child, the two discuss their relationship, quarrel maturely, express their mutual trust and affection, do a jaunty little softshoe step together on a dusty road, and, on a seesaw with "their weight balancing finally after years of being unequal," daydream playfully about their imagined future house in the country. He does decide to keep from her his dying grandfather's wish, relayed through a cousin's phone call, to see Stowe: As Annie wasn't mentioned, he won't...

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Mary M. Burns

Reflecting on the summer of his thirteenth year, Stowe Garrett [the hero of IOU's,] concludes that it has been a time of goodbyes…. But goodbyes also mean the chance to explore possibilities as yet barely apprehensible—the hopeful note on which the book concludes. Written from the adolescent's perspective, the story explores with sensitivity and insight the relationship between two remarkable individuals—Stowe and his unconventional mother Annie. Separated from her husband, disinherited by her father, Annie has struggled to keep their fragile household afloat, specializing in tasks which permit her to work at home. The work is hard, and the return small; yet the bond between mother and son is strong. And...

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Hazel Rochman

Thirteen-year-old Stowe [the hero of "IOU's"] and his mother, Annie, like each other. Deserted by her husband and estranged from her father, Annie has enjoyed bringing up Stowe on her own in spite of the economic hardship. Their teasing, affectionate relationship is questioned by Stowe's friend Brownie, who can only see parents in terms of adversarial authority and who taunts Stowe about his need for his mother's approval….

Stowe's ambivalence is wonderfully captured. He has moments of sudden recklessness, exhilarated at having risked pursuing his way even if his mother might be right. But he also nurses a secret prayer: "Let me be better to her than they were…. I want to make it up to my...

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Joseph O. Milner

In abstract, Ouida Sebestyen's Words by Heart seems a religious Charlotte's Web. It recounts the growth of Lena from bright, ambitious girlhood to a maturity equal to that of her too-good black Papa who, at the cost of his own life, teaches her to love her white enemies…. Unpleasantries are foreshadowed and then explode with a poor white sharecropper's family whom Lena and her father have replaced as "hands" for a wealthy and paranoid woman. Finally, Lena makes a long trek into the wastelands to help her wounded Papa, only to be asked by him to help his assailant (the white sharecropper's son), who is himself near death. The bright and aspiring Lena, her father's unforgetting, less optimistic second...

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Beverly Haley

Everything has its price. To gain something, you must lose something. And the dearer the prize, the greater the cost. [In Words by Heart] Lena wins the Bible recitation contest, but she pays with her personal pride. And later, to gain her father's respect, she must force herself to bring those memorized words to life. "A price must be paid" recurs as a major theme in Ouida Sebestyen's novels—Words by Heart, Far From Home, and IOU's…. She tries, she says, to create a "sense of miraculous heroes, a sense of individual worth and potential." She wants her stories to show how things have been, how they ought to be, how they can be.

Sebestyen's characters provide the vehicle for...

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