Sue Ellen Bridgers Barbara Helfgott - Essay

Barbara Helfgott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading a first novel is like meeting a stranger—one has no idea what to expect. We come prepared to accept the mildest of diversions, though we long for much more. We want to be stirred, involved and enlightened.

The home of ["Home Before Dark"] is a tobacco farm in Montreet County, N.C., to which James Earl Willis returns after an absence of 16 years. Those years have given him a wife, four children and a life of endless wandering as a migrant worker. Acting from some dimly realized compulsion to return to the world of his childhood, he brings his family to live in an old cabin on the family property, which now belongs to his brother.

The homecoming is experienced by each member of the Willis family in a different way. For James Earl, it represents a chance for self-renewal…. For the children, it offers the chance to explore a world they've fleetingly glimpsed from the back seat of a car. And for 14-year-old Stella Willis it means everything: "A place to store the secret Stella and draw her longings out slowly, carefully, one by one, and keep them safe."

Stella's longings, for all her road-wise knowledge, are not so different from those of other girls her age, and by the time the book ends, she is well on her way to fulfillment. She has learned a little about love and friendship, about keeping and letting go—about growing up.

No summary can convey the tremendous integrity of a book like "Home Before Dark." The author speaks with a voice that is intensely lyrical yet wholly un-selfconscious. Character and theme have been developed with such painstaking attention that each episode seems inevitable and right.

Barbara Helfgott, in her review of "Home Before Dark," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1976, p. 40.