Ouida Sebestyen Kristin Hunter - Essay

Kristin Hunter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)