Ouida Sebestyen Joseph O. Milner - Essay

Joseph O. Milner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 wife, Claudie, the lonely, unlovely, rich Mrs. Chism, the ignorant and defeated sharecropper family, and the less fully developed white townfolk are all appealingly and convincingly portrayed. Papa, however, is so much a modern Jesus that readers might find it difficult to suspend their disbelief; his perfection is overwhelming. (pp. 171-72)

[Papa] is finally committed to a life of service and love: "That's what we're here for, to serve each other…. The greatest people who ever lived served others." [Lena] tries to emulate her father on the playground but can't speak up for the taunted Haney boy; she does better in going to see Mrs. Chism after she gets word that her fine party was a flop, but she is misunderstood; and finally, with great misgiving, she does the ultimate good by taking the torn Tater Haney back home and by never telling Claudie who shot Papa. She is not Papa, but she has trodden close to his steps of pure service. The ideals of obedience and sacrifice win Lena's ultimate allegiance. (p. 172)

Joseph O. Milner, "The Emergence of Awe in Recent Children's Literature," in Children's Literature: Annual of the Modern Language Association Group on Children's Literature and The Children's Literature Association, Vol. 10, edited by Francelia Butler, Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 169-77.∗