My review of Billie Letts’ novel “Made in the USA” is quite long. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Leave your comments below if you think my reviews should be shorter! Enjoy!
BILLIE LETTS- MADE IN THE USA
Readers buy books for different reasons. Sometimes it’s because the book is dirt cheap, at other times it’s because the book is a bestseller. Some of us buy books because of the cover and are sometimes disappointed when it doesn’t meet up to our expectations. Yet again some don’t buy books except they are a particular genre.
I think I fall safely in the category of readers that buy books because they are cheap! I know you think I can’t spend good money on a good book. Well, it’s not that, not at all. I just find it satisfying to buy four very clean second hand books (no torn pages for that matter) at a good price. That’s four stories at the price of one book!
Anyway, this review isn’t about my addiction to second hand books. It’s about a book that made me drop a few tears. While I am quite the sentimental reader who “oohs” and “aahs” at the happenings in a book, I can equally bawl my eyes out when a story really pulls at my heartstrings. Billie Letts’ Made in the USA did that to me.
The cover picture of the paperback copy I read doesn’t give much away about the story. All you see is a young lady in the fields and some tents in the background suggesting some kind of circus. Although I must confess that I didn’t notice the tents until I started writing this review!
Made in the USA starts with a death. The death of a lady called Floy. Floy is the ex-girlfriend of a father of two motherless children: Lutie and Fate. Floy dies in a Wal-Mart in the town of Spearfish, South Dakota and life as the two children know it changes. Lutie is fifteen, Fate is eleven. Lutie in her young wisdom convinces the police that they have an aunt who can take care of them. She says this because of her fear of Child Protective Services which she explains to her brother may break them apart. Lutie doesn’t know how to drive but she lies to the policeman that she can and proceeds to drive (howbeit amateurishly) Floy’s car to the trailer they had shared with Floy. Although Lutie never planned to take Fate with her to Las Vegas (where their father supposedly lives) she changes her mind when she sees that he’s afraid and unhappy.
I followed the story worrying about these two helpless children and wondering how they would get along in this cruel world. I realized that Billie Letts has this ability to tell a story without flinching. What do I mean? If I were the author, I would probably bring a Good Samaritan their way quickly so that their suffering is not prolonged. Not so for this story though.
Lutie and Fate leave for Las Vegas with just $112.47c and hope in their hearts that they would meet their father who had left them years ago with Floy. Their life is inundated with one event after another.
The children manage to get to Las Vegas after contending with a crazy hitchhiker, Micheal, a compulsive liar who cuts off Fate’s hair and steals their money. Lutie’s wrong judgment at this point in picking up the hitchhiker cost them a large amount of their money. By the time the children arrive in Las Vegas, Lutie’s jerky amateur driving seems to have improved. Unfortunately, the children find out that their father no longer lives at the address they had.
The night they arrive in Las Vegas, the author gives the reader a glimpse of a Good Samaritan who makes the children hurry out of the construction site where they had parked the car to avoid being noticed. He also leaves a note on the hood of the car telling them where to park safely next time.
The children are soon to find that their father is dead, they try to put the loss behind them by going to church to reminisce and cry. Although their father was an alcoholic from what the children can remember, they still mourn his death.
Homeless and broke, Lutie takes responsibility for both of them. She begins to look for a job but as a fifteen year old with no documents Lutie is helpless until she meets T who helps her procure a new identity, a driver’s license and a social security number.
In return she pays with nude photos of herself. At this point in the story I became terrified for Lutie because it was obvious that if their needs increase or life became unbearable she would have to do more than take her clothes off.
Meanwhile, Fate (originally named Fale – who actually got his name from a mistake on the birth certificate) gets familiar with the neighbourhood. He takes his love for knowledge to the library and spends a lot of time there. On one occasion while Fate is in the library bathroom the Good Samaritan drops a bag of lunch for him yet Fate never sees who it is. I like the way the author introduces the character of the Good Samaritan, as a guardian angel, waiting for the right moment to reveal himself so as not to scare the children away.
The Good Samaritan features again when Fate is bitten by a scorpion and helps him tie a cockroach to the spot while the little boy is asleep.
The author gives the reader an insight into the personalities of the two children. Lutie is a self-absorbed teenager who wants to grow up fast, she is selfish and often wants to have her way but deep inside she’s actually a nice girl who loves her brother. The ease with which she shoplifts, steals and comes up with lies was a bit disconcerting for me but that didn’t make me like her less for being brave and taking responsibility for her little brother.
Fate is a sweet boy. I fell in love with his character from the beginning. Intelligent, very thoughtful and sensitive he understands his sister and often tries to please her. He’s also very wise but knows to keep quiet when he doesn’t have to talk. He cares about his sister and it is very evident in the book from beginning to end.
Lutie gets a job in a hotel as a cleaner and this is where she loses her virginity. Again, this part was difficult for me because I just wanted the children to have a good and easy life. I wasn’t prepared for this part because I thought Lutie would remember her fellow cleaner and friend’s warning about their boss.
“You always leave the door open when you cleaning. If it close, we know he’s inside and we come in to bring fresh towel”.
Her virginity is forcefully taken without any ceremony by her boss, a libidinous man who surprised her when she steps into a room to clean. I felt so bad for Lutie here because her friend was just across the hall and she never came to her rescue perhaps because they had a fight shortly before the rape.
The story moves swiftly along after the rape. Lutie is devastated and thoroughly shaken. Of course she quits the job at the hotel and continues working at a restaurant where she had taken night shifts. She goes back to T to request for money to rent an apartment after Fate is attacked by some boys on the street who had attempted to steal the car but for some police intervention.
Lutie ends up acting in an adult movie in return for the money. She is introduced to drugs and carefully avoids Fate. Lutie’s job at the restaurant sustains them, while they live in a dinghy room in a cheap motel. Saving up money to get a better place the children cling to each other for support. Fate makes some change from collecting golf balls and later recyclable plastic. But soon after, Lutie is brutally attacked by a co-worker who had seen all the money she got from T in her purse. The Good Samaritan comes to her rescue – the guardian angel is eventually revealed as a limping man called Juan Vargas with a dog named Draco.
Juan Vargas’ arrival is the turning point of the story for the children. He takes the unconscious Lutie to his friends Rosa and Dr. Hector who nurse her slowly to health. Fate enjoys the short stay with them especially Rosa’s love, care and prayers. She would tell him “May God keep you in the safety of His Arms”. I loved Rosa for giving the little boy a sweet memory to cherish.
Juan Vargas drives Lutie, Fate and Draco to his family in Oklahoma. We are soon to find out that Juan grew up with a circus. As he explains to Fate, the circus is like a tribe. It is in this family, this closely knitted tribe that Lutie finds healing for her body as well as her soul. Fate finds a friend and settles in. While Lutie is still bent on leaving at a point before the story ends and even attempts to, Juans’ grandmother brings her back. She soon finds something she loves balancing on beams and a high wire and with Juans’ encouragement she learns to do it perfectly.
At the end of the story, Juan who had run away from home before ending up in Las Vegas finds home again, Lutie and Fate find a family and peace from their troubles.
Billie Letts’ Made In USA is a beautiful story of hope, faith and trust. It explores the stark reality of poverty and homelessness and human frailties like fear, greed, lust and jealousy.
The strength of the story lies in the good people who rendered help without inhibitions. This book was a good read. It softly pulled at my heart strings and steered me to understand that life is not perfect even in the books and that at the end of the day love does conquer all.
Do you think kindness comes naturally to some than others? Share your thoughts!