Kirkus Reviews hooked me into reading The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall with this description: “Classic elements of Southern comedy—evil twins, people dropping dead, a faith healer, a river-rafting trip—[surrounding] a lovable pair of central characters. Unfortunately, The Book of Polly does not deliver as fully as promised. Oh, yes, the story does contain evil twins, people who drop dead, a faith healer, and a river-rafting trip; that much comes true.
The story simply misses the mark for me in other ways. Willow is an engaging little girl who grows from a worried ten-year-old to a worried sixteen-year-old over the course of the story. The story’s premise is interesting. On the day of her husband’s funeral, Polly discovers, at fifty-eight, that she is pregnant with her third child. That child turns out to be Willow.
Lisa and Shel, Willow’s older sister and brother, are long gone from home. Both have married and live in other states while Polly and Willow continue to live in Texas. Because of Polly’s age and because Polly insists upon smoking, Willow worries constantly about losing Polly.
Willow goes to great lengths to keep Polly alive, even hiding her cigarettes on the Great Smoke Out day, but Polly bullies Willow into showing where she has hidden the death sticks. Willow also exhibits other behavior I find strange. She wakes up in the middle of the night and stands in her mother’s bedroom doorway to watch her mother breathe. Willow frequently checks on her mom in this way, yet one night when Shel returns home after a nasty divorce, Willow is unaware of his presence until the next morning.
Some reviewers call The Book of Polly laugh-out-loud funny. I did find some amusing points, but not much laugh-out-loud humor. The story begins with Polly taking Willow to school to dispel for the school’s counselor that Willow is a liar. Willow has told several truth-stretching things about her mother to other children. Their mothers complained to the school; hence, Polly must take Willow and meet with the counselor.
Polly takes a borrowed falcon with her, having it perch on the leather arm cover because Willow has told her fellow classmates that her mother hunts with a falcon. Luckily, Polly knows someone who will loan her a falcon. Now, the story may be funny, but it is rather unbelievable. Willow has also said her sister is “with Jesus” which the children have taken to mean that Lisa is dead.
Polly explains to the counselor that Lisa is not dead, but she is with Jesus, meaning she is very devout. After several more explanations, the counselor gives up, knowing she cannot counter Polly’s arguments. The counselor ends the interview by saying she hopes never to meet Polly and Willow in her office again.
Willow and her mother are constantly at odds over a variety of things. Polly wants to chase all the squirrels out of the yard because they eat her pecans and garden vegetables. Willow does not want the critters hurt. Then surprisingly, Polly rescues a baby squirrel after a storm when its mother does not return. Willow is shocked that her mother would care for the baby squirrel so tenderly. Polly names the baby squirrel Elmer.
Besides desiring to keep Polly alive, Willow wants desperately to know about Polly’s past in Bethel, LA and why Polly is so secretive about it and why she says she can never go back there. Feigning illness one Sunday, Willow stays home while Polly goes to church. Dalton, Willow’s neighbor and playmate, comes over to help Willow search Polly’s room for clues to Polly’s past.
Shel, Willow’s brother, has told Willow that he found some letters once from LA. Willow wants to know what he read in them, but he says he was only seven then and Polly scolded him soundly so he never tried finding the letters again. Certain the letters hold the clues to Polly’s past and most likely will help keep Polly alive, Willow searches the closet until she finds a shoebox full of letters. Before she can read more than an address and a first name, Polly returns to check on Willow.
Incensed, Polly takes the box of letters and a lighter to the backyard with Willow begging her to stop. Before her eyes, Willow sees the letters turn into wisps of smoke and blackened paper. That avenue is now lost.
Willow’s fears become heightened when Polly discovers she has cancer, but she calls the cancer bear. Fortunately, Polly’s treatment chases the bear away. Unfortunately, the bear returns, causing Willow even more grief.
In the end, Polly, Willow, and Phoenix, Shel’s childhood friend, all drive to Bethel, LA, to meet with a faith healer. Willow will finally discover her mother’s past.
Kathy Hepinstall has written five books including The Book of Polly; her other books are Blue Asylum, The House of Gentlemen, The Absence of Nectar, and Prince of Lost Places. The books differ widely from one another. Blue Asylum, for example, is set during the Civil War. The Absence of Nectar is a modern-day thriller.
Kathy Hepinstall maintains a Web site at this link: http://kathyhepinstallwriter.com/.