Sometimes young adult novels hide a traumatic, life-altering event as a deep, dark mystery in the main character’s past. Sometimes the event occurs after half a novel’s worth of foreshadowing. In Billie Standish Was Here, the trauma comes near the beginning of the novel, when 11-year-old Billie is raped.
Billie Standish Was Here, by Nancy Crocker. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
In 1968, Billie Standish lives in a small town in Missouri, on the banks of a river. The levee that safeguards Cumberland from floods may be about to break. Almost all the residents have left town to escape the coming flood. Billie and her family are among the few who stay in Cumberland. Billie’s parents don’t bother to interact with her, except to demand she clean something or make dinner, and she is left virtually alone.
As the novel begins, Billie is just beginning to get to know an old woman named Lydia Jenkins, and Lydia’s forty-something son, Curtis. Lydia takes care of Billie after the rape, but neither of them tells anyone about it when the town returns. For everyone but the two of them, life continues as it always has.
The book follows Billie over the next few years as she deals with the fallout, confronting old assumptions and new fears. Billie and Lydia become close friends, despite the difference in their ages. Their friendship is supportive and caring, very rarely coming across as saccharine. The supporting cast–Billie’s parents and friend from school–have enough depth to be interesting. Her school friend is a boy, which shocks her at first, but he becomes her closest confidante, aside from Lydia. Billie’s relationship with her parents changes, but doesn’t fall prey to the magical (and unconvincing) happily-ever-after feel of many young adult novels. The feeling of hopefulness that suffuses the book is an uncommon element in young adult fiction, which tends toward the grim and wrenching when dealing with somber subjects. While portraying unhealthy relationships and damaging expectations, the book also shows how they can be overcome. It’s a nice change. Billie herself is a strong character, determined to make up her own mind.
Though she receives no encouragement at home to even think about continuing her education, Billie decides it’s something she wants. She studies, reads newspapers, and works her way through Lydia’s collection of magazines. Billie explains that she and her friend “didn’t depend on a school. Miss Lydia pushed us and we pushed each other. We read and discussed stuff every day.”
Readers looking for an action-packed adventure should look elsewhere, however. There are no explosions or alien invasions. There is no secret society busy averting apocalypses. The most dramatic moments come from the characters’ emotional conflict. Billie Standish Was Here, by Nancy Crocker, is a coming-of-age novel with a brave premise that is unusually well-executed. Though the subject of the book may be too much for elementary school readers to handle, the language itself isn’t bogged down with multi-syllabic thesaurus treasures, and Billie’s voice is clear and entertaining. Despite spanning several years, the book never feels rushed or strained. Billie Standish Was Here will appeal to fans of growing-up tales and happy, realistic endings.