Oklahoma Exile by Norma Jean Lutz is the story of a City Girl forced by events to adapt to the life of a Country Girl. The larger conflict is whether she will succeed in doing this while at the same time retaining the identity of Serena. The reader knows immediately that Serena City Girl has a disdain for a country lifestyle. Serena is polite about this and the larger conflict is expressed and takes place largely within Serena herself. Only a very perceptive relative or friend could detect this conflict.
Serena had a loving family. Her mother did not abandon her but sent her to live with an aunt on an Oklahoma farm while mom remained in Minneapolis to oversee the physical rehabilitation of Serena’s brother, Kris. Mom had given up her job to take over full control of the recovery of Kris. A single parent, she accepted the financial hit to take care of Serena’s brother. She had to move to a smaller apartment and could no longer pay for the exclusive school where Serena had been studying. Serena’s father had died. When only seven years old, her brother’s legs had been crushed in a motorcycle accident in which he had been thrown from the bike during a crash. He was sitting behind Serena at the time. She had been operating the bike and accepted responsibility for the life-changing incident that put Kris into the hospital for several months. Her guilt spurs one of the minor conflicts in Serena’s life.
Serena went from a private school in the city to an almost one room school in the country. Her new school did not even have computers. The classes at the new school did not have a separation of classes defined by grade in which the students studied. Seniors had no problem establishing relationships with Sophomores; there was no difference in study resources and support available to them. Students talked about and were very aware of the prices of crops and the conditions of weather necessary for farming success. As far as Serena could see, students were genuinely interested in these topics and easily accepted the need to be absent from school at times when farming demands were high and a family needed the students’ presence to aid in harvests.
This is not to say that the country student population was homogeneous in their desire to maintain and become supporters of a country lifestyle. Serena’s cousin, Amber June, seemed remarkably clumsy at farm-related skills. She was very conscious of her beauty and the potential it could bring to get away from the farm after graduation. Maybe she would go to a larger nearby city for a career. In this, she and Serena were in agreement. Serena had no desire to remain in her new environment for any amount of time greater than necessary for her brother’s recovery and her mom’s return to full employment. Sarena and her cousin initially got along well. Amber June had her ambition, the desire to become the Homecoming Queen, but this desire did not compete with a genuine desire to help Serena fit into her adopted family, one led by Aunt Loula, the sister of Serena’s mother. Conflicts would arise, especially when Cabe, Amber June’s boyfriend, seemed to be shifting his affections to Serena. The way that conflict plays out provides one of the few surprises of this story. Serena had a life-long friend, almost a boyfriend, Brent, but he seems to have abandoned her. Maybe Brent also blamed Serena for the accident that had crippled Kris. Eventually, Serena accepted the possible abandonment by Brent. There was a new guy in town, Vincent, a friend of Scotty, Amber June’s brother. He provided a substitute for Brent and an acceptable alternative to Cabe.
This story does not have surprises. It is a comfort read, one a reader will enjoy when coming home from a trying day at the office with a desire to escape into an environment that will play out with a degree of predictability. There are no shocking twists and turns, no clash of symbols, no ah-hah moments. It is a well-told story aimed at a younger crowd (YA) but still a pleasant value-affirming read for an older reader. Families are not dysfunctional, nobody is a hopeless alcoholic or on drugs and the most violent activity described might be the fire accidentally set to hay bales. Or maybe it is the incident with Romper (a dog). The names of characters suggest lifestyles; Amber June and Cabe, stereotypical country names and Serena, a bit more mysterious and exotic. Even the title of the book matched with the author’s name suggests a nostalgia for country living.
This is a book I can recommend for some of my classes in English as a Second Language. The language level as far as difficulty is appropriate for the development of a language learner. There is a nice reflection of cultural values that may be more desired than realistic. But an emphasis on the positive is good as a language learner, somewhat like Serena, must deal with a new environment.