The Book of Polly: A Novel

The Book of Polly: A Novel

by Kathy Hepinstall


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“Delightful. . . funny and poignant.” —People

With a kick like the best hot sauce, this is the laugh-out-loud story of a girl determined to keep up with her aging, crazy-as-a-fox mother

"If you ever pined for a mother who would take a hunting falcon as her wingman to a parent-teacher conference, Polly is the gal for you. Delicious." —Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama 

Willow Havens is ten years old and obsessed with the fear that her mother will die. Her mother, Polly, is a cantankerous, take-no-prisoners Southern woman who lives to chase varmints, drink margaritas, and antagonize the neighbors—and she sticks out like a sore thumb among the young modern mothers of their small conventional Texas town. She was in her late fifties when Willow was born, so Willow knows she’s here by accident, a late-life afterthought. Willow’s father died before she was born, her much older brother and sister are long grown and gone and failing elsewhere. It’s just her and bigger-than-life Polly. 

Willow is desperately hungry for clues to the family life that preceded her, and especially Polly’s life pre-Willow. Why did she leave her hometown of Bethel, Louisiana, fifty years ago and vow never to return? Who is Garland Jones, her long-ago suitor who possibly killed a man? And will Polly be able to outrun the Bear, the illness that finally puts her on a collision course with her past?

The Book of Polly has a great blend of humor and sadness, pathos and hilarity. This is a bittersweet novel about the grip of love in a truly quirky family and you’ll come to know one of the most unforgettable mother-daughter duos you’ve ever met.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399562105
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/27/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 246,572
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kathy Hepinstall grew up in Spring, Texas, near the Louisiana border. Polly is based, in part, on Kathy’s own mother, who has as wicked a tongue as her fictional counterpart. Kathy now lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What tormented me most, even more than Polly’s secrets, were her cigarettes. I’d seen the black lungs in ads, and pictured Polly’s lungs, already old, already threadbare, quivering in the smoky cloud of each puff like doomed soldiers in the trench of her chest. The cafeteria lady at my school loved Salem Lights. I’d see her outside in her smock, smoking up a storm. Then she got sick and left for a while. She came back thin and pale, hair net pulled over a bald head as she served us spaghetti. Then one day she disappeared for good. They announced her death over the intercom, and everyone got free onion rings.

 “A shame about the poor lady,” Polly remarked. “You never know when the Bear might strike.” Polly never used the word cancer. It was as if invoking it would be an invitation for it to slide under our door and slink inside her cigarettes. So she said Bear. People had lung Bear, stomach Bear, skin Bear, or worst of all (and she said this in a whisper) hinder Bear—or, colon cancer. “My uncle had the hinder Bear,” she said delicately. “He shrank down to ninety pounds, poor fellow. But they cut it out of him and he was okay for a few years, ’til he had a heart attack while leaning over a rain barrel and drowned.”
The morning ofthe Great American Smokeout, an event that held zero interest for Polly, I hid her last packet of Virginia Slims. She discovered that fact just before the bus came.

Polly had worked as a cashier at Walgreens ever since my father died. She confronted me before school in her Walgreens smock, her name tag dangling from a cord she worearound her neck.

“Willow,” she said. “Come here.”

“Yes?” My hair was drawn into two ponytails. I had my prized lunch box and was ready to go.

“Where are mycigarettes?”

“I don’t know.”

Her eyebrow arched.

“Don’t you lie,Willow.”

I looked at her defiantly. “It’s the Great American Smokeout.”

“So? Some damn fool who doesn’t even smoke made up a holiday? What if it was National Pee Your Pants day? Should I pee my pants, you think?”

“I have to go toschool.”

I opened the front door, letting in a fall breeze and the murmurs of the kids at the bus stop.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Polly said.

“But, Mom, I have perfect attendance!”

“Well that’s your problem and you can fix it in two shakes of a rat’s tail if you just tell me where you hid my cigarettes.”

I turned around, but left the door open. We stared at each other. My lunch box dangled from my hand. A line had appeared in her skin between her eyebrows, like a twitching nerve rising to the surface. I could hear the bus rumbling down the block, coming closer.

The gauntlet had been thrown. I hated Polly at that moment, but not enough to capitulate. It was National Smokeout Day and I was going to save a fraction of her life.

“The Bear is going to come for you,” I told her. “Just like he came for the lunch lady. Is that what you want?”

We held each other’s gaze as the bus groaned to a stop and I heard the creak of the doors opening. Then with a hush, they closed. The bus eased away and there was silence.

“You know, in my day, girls who missed school grew up to be tramps. Got pregnant early,” Polly remarked.

“You are so mean,” I said.

“No!” she answered. “You are mean. Forcing your poor old mother to drive to the store and restock.”

“I’m trying to keep you from dying!” I shouted, my voice full of righteous indignation.

The line between her eyes was back. “That’s God’s way!” she shot back. “The parents are supposed to die before the child and everyone starts bitching soon as it happens. Now tell me where you hid my damn cigarettes!” 

I stood perfectly still, stone faced, lest my body or expression give away when Polly was getting warm. I heard her back in my bedroom, swearing, jerking opening drawers. Next the kitchen, then the den. The cushions from the couch hit the floor. The magazine stand rattled. The wooden blinds thwacked against the window.

I was going to lose. This was nothing; it was only a desperate gesture of love and rage. It would not stop Polly, in the long run, from smoking or from getting older or from dying, but suddenly it meant the world to me. I wanted perfect attendance,but more than that, I wanted someone above me in the chain of life. I didn’t want to be alone, a single blue egg in a crumbling nest.

“Damn it,” Polly mumbled. “Damn it, damn it, damn it. You damn kid.”

Finally she slumped down at the out-of-tune piano in the hallway. I glanced over at her and she stared back at me. Something in my posture or expression must have tipped her off because her eyes squinted and took on a hooded look and then she turned from me, gazing at the piano.

She struck the middle C and it clanged in its off-tune fashion.

I held my breath.

She struck D.

My heart began to sink.

E, F . . .

G was a muffled thud.

She perked up, struck it again.

“No, Mom,” I said pleadingly, but it was too late. She jumped up and propped her knees on the bench so she could open the lid of the piano and peer inside at the keys.

“AH HA!” she shrieked. She stuck her hand in and retrieved a crumpled box of Virginia Slims, the one she’d opened the night before. She withdrew a bent cigarette and tried to straighten it, but gave up. “It’ll do,” she said triumphantly. She cast a glance at me, but something in my expression caused the glee to leave her face. The hand with the cigarette slowly fell to her hip.

“Ah, well, you tried, don’t feel so bad,” she consoled me. “I won’t smoke this in front of you, okay? You are a good kid. Now come on, let me drive you to school.”


Excerpted from "The Book of Polly"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Kathy Hepinstall.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. Is Polly a good mother? Why or why not? Do you think some of the judgments about Polly are generational? Should Polly be judged by the modern standards of parenting? Why or why not?

2. Dalton is Willow’s childhood best friend who becomes her boyfriend when they grow older. What do you think is special about these kinds of evolving relationships?

3. Throughout the novel, Willow attempts to rescue Polly from the clutches of the Bear, Phoenix and Shel come to Polly and Willow’s rescue on the rafting trip, and against all odds Polly rescues Elmer from a storm. In what other ways does the theme of rescue manifest itself in the book? And do you consider these rescues successful?

4. There seems to be a lot of drama around Polly’s cooking—for example, Thanksgiving dinner or the time she invited the neighbors over to discuss the fence. Have you ever had a dinner party go horribly wrong? What is it about food that adds humor to a dark situation?

5. Was Polly right to shield Willow from her personal history? When is the appropriate time to share certain details about your life and your health with your family? Is there always a right time?

6. In some ways, Phoenix seems to be an almost saintlike, protective presence around Willow and Polly. What do you think of his thematic role? How does his involvement affect the dynamics of the family?

7. Polly and her neighbor have a contentious relationship, but after the night he dies she admits in a weak moment that she “kind of liked the old bastard.” How is it possible to have feelings of warmth toward a dreaded enemy? Or was it possible that his death made Polly’s heart soften toward him?

8. What do you think is the significance of Polly using “the Bear” to refer to her cancer? In what ways does superstition play a role in the novel? Can superstition be a good thing as well as a bad thing?

9. Polly hates varmints, and yet she nurtures Elmer, the baby squirrel, in secret. Why does she do it in secret? And what does this say about who she really is?

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