Where the Heart Is
(1995), a romance novel by Billie Letts, was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 1998. Director Matt Williams developed the book into a movie starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd in 2000.
Seventeen-year-old Novalee Nation and her boyfriend, Willy Pickens, are on a cross-country trip to their new home in California. Novalee is pregnant and Willy is annoyed that she has to stop frequently. They stop at the Wal-Mart in a small town so Novalee can replace a pair of shoes she has lost. When Novalee finishes making her purchase, she realizes that Willy has driven off and left her.
The workers at Wal-Mart and some of the people in town do their best to make Novalee comfortable. However, with nowhere to stay, she falls asleep in the Wal-Mart. When she is not caught on the first night, Novalee moves into the store. She sleeps in a tent in the camping section and takes food and other necessities off the shelves, carefully recording everything she uses so she can pay the store back.
During the day when customers are in the Wal-Mart, Novalee spends her time at the library and various places around town. She meets a religious woman named Sister, as well as the town librarian Forney, with whom she develops a close relationship. On the night that her water breaks, Forney helps Novalee get to the hospital where she delivers a baby girl whom she names Americus.
Novalee becomes a minor celebrity after news gets out that she gave birth in Wal-Mart. Her estranged mother briefly comes back into her life, but then disappears again. Sister invites Novalee and Americus to move in with her, and Forney visits them frequently at their home.
Meanwhile, Willy never made it to California. He was arrested along the way for a burglary he did not commit and has spent the past few months in jail in New Mexico. While there, he meets the prison librarian, Claire, who takes a liking to him. Claire gives Willy her son’s old guitar. Willy teaches himself to play and write songs.
Novalee gets a job at the Wal-Mart where she lived during her pregnancy. She meets a young man Troy Moffat who also works there. At first, Troy is short with Novalee and makes a bad first impression, but he apologizes and Novalee accepts his flirtations. They begin to date; though Novalee is on birth control, she soon becomes worried that she is pregnant again. Though this turns out to not be the case, Novalee is worried about what could have happened.
One day, Novalee returns home and finds Americus gone. At first, the police suspect Willy, but Novalee does not know where he is. Soon, Americus is found and returned unharmed. She was kidnapped by some of the well-wishers who visited Novalee after she gave birth.
A massive tornado touches down in Novalee’s town. Sister is killed, though she lives long enough that Novalee is able to say goodbye to her. Novalee prepares to leave town, but then she learns that Sister has left her everything in her will.
Willy, meanwhile, has been released from prison and moved to Nashville where he hopes to become a songwriter. He is making some progress but is unhappy with how his manager handles things. However, one of his best songs is stolen by another artist. The song becomes a huge hit but Willy doesn’t see any money from it.
Novalee continues to work at Wal-Mart since she feels as if she owes the store a debt. She also begins working as a professional photographer for extra money. Well-integrated into the community, she has many chances to repay the people who helped her when she was pregnant and shortly after she gave birth. Novalee also finds herself falling for Forney, though he is considerably older than her.
In Nashville, Willy descends into alcohol and drugs. He is forced to pawn his guitar and goes on a drinking binge that ends with him walking in front of a train. He is struck and loses both his legs in the accident.
A fire breaks out at Forney’s library. His sister, whom he had been caring for, is killed. Forney decides to leave town. Novalee realizes that she is in love with Forney, but doesn’t tell him before he moves away.
When Americus is seven years old, Willy comes back into her life. He tells Novalee that he has been searching for her so that he can try to make up for some of the mistakes in his life. Novalee realizes that she has made mistakes too. She calls Forney and confesses her love to him. Forney is thrilled and agrees to come home so they can spend their lives together.