Please join author Jill Fordyce and me at RUBY’S BOOKS, Sunday Feb. 18 1-2, as we talk about her debut coming of age novel, BELONGING.
This book breaks my heart and heals it too. It’s both precise about a particular time and place—beginning in 1977 in California’s Central Valley town of Bakersfield—and universal—circling our human need to belong. Jill’s crafted a smart, taut, emotional novel that reveals tremendous kindness and dignity. Even those who do wrong in this novel have a backstory that explains how they got there.
I was raised in Bakersfield, three years ahead of Jill. We carpooled to speech and debate tournaments in my 1978 Buick Riviera, Tom Petty and Linda Ronstadt blaring on the eight track. BELONGING brought me right back to that time. The precise details she shares about Bakersfield, details I loved and details I hated, ring true. The novel begins with the great dust storm of 1977, which covered our whole town with piles of grit that reminded local grannies and grandpas of their migration from Texas to Bakersfield in the Great Dust Bowl. Our dreaded dust-borne Valley Fever spore swims to the bottom of protagonist Jenny’s lungs, sending her to the hospital and to a home sick bed where much of her family trouble is revealed. Jenny attends a rehearsal dinner at the Basque restaurant where my husband and I held our rehearsal dinner. At a family funeral, she serves the Smith Bakery yellow smiley face cookies we recently nibbled at my father’s 87th birthday. Jenny watches movies every weekend at Stockdale Six, where I sat in the first row screaming at the first screening of Jaws. Jenny inhales the rich smell of irrigation on farmland on cool mornings before blistering afternoons. She reveres Merle Haggard and the Bakersfield sound. She hates the homophobia that poisons that soil. Her mother totters on a barstool every afternoon at what has to be Mexicali. This novel is so very resonant.
But a reader doesn’t have to be from Bakersfield to feel the generous dignity Jill allots her characters, because the story is universal, turning on the way we need to belong, to be accepted for who we actually are. All of us, everywhere, at every time in history, have needed this, whether or not we ever get it. In spite of the pain Jenny endures, she gets that feeling of belonging, because this novel is honestly redemptive, not falsely redemptive. I highly recommend you read it. It will take you home again.