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.