Oh My Stars: A Novel

Oh My Stars: A Novel

by Lorna Landvik

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Overview

I am convinced that at birth the cake is already baked. Nurture is the nuts or frosting, but if you’re a spice cake, you’re a spice cake, and nothing is going to change you into an angel food.

Tall, slender Violet Mathers is growing up in the Great Depression, which could just as well define her state of mind. Abandoned by her mother as a child, mistreated by her father, and teased by her schoolmates (“Hey, Olive Oyl, where’s Popeye?”), the lonely girl finds solace in artistic pursuits. Only when she’s hired by the town’s sole feminist to work the night shift in the local thread factory does Violet come into her name, and bloom. Accepted by her co-workers, the teenager enters the happiest phase of her life, until a terrible accident causes her to retreat once again into her lonely shell.

Realizing that she has only one clear choice, Violet boards a bus heading west to California. But when the bus crashes in North Dakota, it seems that Fate is having another cruel laugh at Violet’s expense. This time though, Violet laughs back. She and her fellow passengers are rescued by two men: Austin Sykes, whom Violet is certain is the blackest man to ever set foot on the North Dakota prairie, and Kjel Hedstrom, who inspires feelings Violet never before has felt. Kjel and Austin are musicians whose sound is like no other, and with pluck, verve, and wit, Violet becomes part of their quest to make a new kind of music together.

Oh My Stars is Lorna Landvik’s most ambitious novel yet, with a cast of characters whose travails and triumphs you’ll long remember. It is a tale of love and hope, bigotry and betrayal, loss and discovery–as Violet, who’s always considered herself a minor character in her own life story, emerges as a heroine you’ll laugh with, cry with, and, most important, cheer for all the way.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345484789
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/19/2005
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 203,117
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Lorna Landvik is an actor and comedian who has written and produced plays in which she also performs. The author of five previous novels, she is married and the mother of two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On her sixteenth birthday, violet mathers nearly bled to death in a thread factory. The “incident,” as it was referred to in the company’s 1935 logbook, happened on the graveyard shift, just before break time, when the pounding and the whirring and the squeaking of the machines had crescendoed into a percussion concert conducted by the devil himself. Lamont Travers, the foreman, told her later in the hospital that the worst accidents always happen before break; people can’t wait to smoke their cigarettes or drink their coffee and talk about whose man or whose woman had done who the wrongest. Violet hadn’t cared about any of that; she wanted only to cut into the marble cake RaeAnn Puffer had brought, wanted only to hear her co-workers raise their tired, smoky voices in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

Excited and jumpy as a puppy with a full bladder, the birthday girl broke the cardinal rule of the Marcelline Thread factory, the cardinal rule printed in capital letters on at least three signs posted on the dusty brick walls: do not attempt to clear or repair the machinery without first turning machinery off.

She was running the Klayson, a big reliable machine that sweat oil as it wound and cut dozens of spools of thread. There were women who were possessive of their machines (Lula Wendell even named hers and explained that whenever the machine spit out thread or overwound, it was because “Pauletta” was on her monthly). Violet had formed no deep attachments to the masses of metal, preferring the job of “runner” and working whatever machine needed running. When she ran the Klayson, she felt as if she was wrangling a harmless but stubborn old cow, and it was almost with affection that she scolded the machine when it huffed and burped to a stop.

“Now, come on, gal, I ain’t got time for this,” said Violet, and with one hand on the Klayson’s metal flank, she stuck the other up into its privates, feeling for the tangled clot of thread.

There was a yank then and the benign old cow turned into a crazed bull, sucking her arm up between its jaws.

A flash fire of shock and pain exploded at Violet’s elbow joint and in her brain, and just as red hot was her outrage: But it’s my birthday!

RaeAnn, who was next to Violet on the floor, screamed, and Polly Ball, the only woman on the floor to have gone to college (she would have graduated from UNC-Raleigh with a degree in art history had she not been summoned home after her father died), thought: that’s the scream in the Edvard Munch painting.

Violet too heard the scream even as she fainted, even as the weight of her falling body helped further tear skin from skin and bone from bone. When she woke up in the hospital, her stub-arm wrapped and bleeding like a rump roast in butcher’s paper, the screaming was still inside her head—was in her head for more years than she cared to count.

When the morphine curtain lifted on her consciouness, her first thought was: some sweet sixteenth.

Violet should have known better; in her short history she had learned that expectations only deepened the disappointment that inevitably stained every special occasion—not that many were celebrated. In excavating her mind for memories of parties and presents, she’d only been able to dig up those concerning her sixth birthday, when her mother baked her a yellow cake iced with raspberry jelly and gave her a real present to unwrap. It was a rag doll Violet immediately christened Jellycakes, commemorating what she told her mother was “the best birthday cake and the best birthday doll ever ever ever ever made.”

The remembrance of that lone celebration was ruined by what her mother did three days later, which was to run off with the pharmacist from Henson Drugs. Considering her robust good health, Erlene spent a lot of time at the pharmacy window; every other customer walked away tucking green or brown bottles of tonics and pills and elixirs into their purses or pockets, but all her mama left the drugstore with was a flushed face and a soft dreamy look in her eyes. Violet liked Mr. Gladstone, the pharmacist—he gave her root-beer barrels, and once a Henson’s Drugs (“For All Your Drug & Sundries Needs”) calendar with a picture of a kitten on it—but after he robbed her of her mother, Violet came to think of the druggist as the criminal he was; a man guilty of grand theft. She was a child at the time of the crime, hadn’t even started the first grade yet. Ten years later, when Violet lost her arm, it occurred to her that this was not her first amputation, but her second.

Later, when she came to know how love can slam reason and responsibility to the mat as easily as a heavyweight takes down a bantam, Violet forgave her mother for running off (Yarby Gladstone did have nice clean hands, after all, and an entire set of teeth, or at least all of the ones that showed in a smile), but she never forgave Erlene for forgetting about her, for never sending a letter or postcard, for never sending for her. Mothers who disappear off the face of the earth leave their children feeling as if they’ve disappeared too; disappeared from everything they thought was certain and safe and true. Abandonment can be crueler to a child than death; Violet would rather her mama had died because at least a grave would have given her a place to visit, something to touch, something to talk to.


There were few people in Mount Crawford, Kentucky, surprised by the young Mrs. Mathers taking a permanent leave of absence; it didn’t take any great power of observation to see that Violet’s parents were as mismatched as a crow and a canary. Judd Mathers was Erlene’s senior by fifteen years and had always looked older than his age; he was not yet forty when his wife left, and yet his long thin face was as creased as a bloodhound’s, his black hair leeched to a lusterless gray. He was one of those men hobbled by his inability to exercise his emotions (except for anger), although Violet thought that in his stunted capacity, he really loved his wife. She remembered him smiling at her mama’s jokes, watching Erlene with a shy delight when she put the corn bread on the table, crowing, “Ta-da!” or when she hung the clothes out on the line, grabbing his union suit and pretending to waltz with it.

What registered most on the young Mrs. Mathers’s face when she looked at her husband was disbelief and impatience, as if she were always asking herself, “How did I get here?” and “How soon can I leave?” Had she not gone and got herself pregnant, Erlene would have laughed out loud at Judd’s marriage proposal, would have swatted it away as if it was a black and pesky fly.

There was a certain flightiness to her mama that, even as a child, Violet recognized. The young (she was only eighteen when Violet was born), trim woman could be in the middle of kneading dough when she’d wipe her hands on the dish towel and dash out of the back door, calling out that she was going to town to see what was playing at the picture show, and would Violet mind punching down the bread when it rose? The little girl longed to chase after her but had learned early on that she was usually included in those things from which Erlene needed to escape. When her mother was in an affectionate mood, she might invite Violet onto her lap, but it wasn’t long before the girl would be flung off, as Erlene would be distracted by chores or a sudden need to manicure her nails, to wave-set her hair, or dance to the crystal radio in the boxy little room she called the parlor.

Erlene was full of fun ideas—“Let’s pick raspberries and have a picnic on Mount Crawford!” “Let’s throw a tea party on the porch!”—and once or twice these ideas blossomed into reality, but most always Violet would be left waiting on the crumbling front steps, her eagerness bright as a balloon and just as sure to deflate. The bulk of memories concerning her mother were those in which Erlene stood her up (indoctrinating Violet early on into the sorry club of wallflowerhood), and yet the little girl believed her mama when she called her her “precious flower,” clung to those rare terms of endearment, knowing they were proof of her love.

Violet made all sorts of excuses for her, but in her deep heart she knew that mothers who loved their precious flowers didn’t leave them to grow up in a musty old house on the edge of town with a father whose personality vacillated between melancholia and meanness; surely Erlene knew how that would make a precious flower wither up and die?

Violet. It didn’t take long for everyone to see that the child had been misnamed.

“Gawd Almighty,” Uncle Maynard said the first time he saw her, “she’s homelier than Tate Seevers!”

(Tate Seevers was the one-eyed World War I vet who lived in a shack outside the junkyard with his half-wolf dog.)

Uncle Clyde nodded. “Yuh, I reckon you’ll see prettier faces in a horse barn.”

These stories were gleefully told to Violet by her cousin Byron, who seemed to have an endless collection.

“My mama says only people with hexes on ’em got faces like yours.”

“I heard your daddy says the only way you’re ever gonna get a boyfriend is if he sends you to a school for the blind.”

“Sit up, Violet, speak! Good dog.”

The Matherses’ back porch was the local speakeasy for Judd and his brothers-in-law, who’d congregate there to drink the corn liquor Uncle Maynard showed some talent at making; but after Erlene left, her brothers never came around. It wasn’t shame over their sister’s transgressions (Violet doubted they had shame, over their transgressions or anyone else’s) that kept them away; but their abandonment was double the hurt for her father, who not only lost his wife, but his drinking buddies. Violet didn’t miss them at all—they were loud and crude, like most drunks—and she could easily live the rest of her life without her cousin Byron and the two gifts he so conscientiously gave her during each and every visit: the “Indian burns” that cuffed the girl’s arms in welts and the constant taunts about her looks.


“Why does everyone think I’m so ugly, Mama?”

A giggle erupted from Erlene’s throat; she had an odd sense of what was funny and what wasn’t.

“Violet, now put that away,” she said, recovering her composure. “It’s time for bed.”

Erlene’s interest in things domestic was minimal, but occasionally she’d bring out her sewing basket (made of willow, it was the sort of crafted object that would be sold years later as folk art for the kind of money its creator, a mountain woman named Gimpy Mary, never saw in her lifetime), and wanting to share something—anything—with her mother, Violet was determined to sew too. Like her father, she was good with her hands; they were quick and deft and seemed able to figure out things with little guidance from her brain.

Jabbing the needle in the handkerchief she was hemming for her father, Violet set it on the upended flour can that was her nightstand.

“And everyone does not think you’re ugly,” said Erlene, bringing the faded patchwork quilt up to her daughter’s neck and crimping its edges. “It’s just that, well, I suppose it’s because you’ve got a chin that looks like it wants to pick a fight.” She smiled, fondling the jaw that would have fit a man’s face better than a little girl’s. “You’ll just have to work on your other attributes.”

“What are ‘attributes,’ Mama?” asked Violet, liking Erlene’s hand on her face, even as she disparaged it.

“Well, look at me: I’m pretty, but I don’t stop there. I work on things, things like being smart and clever—who can tell a joke as good as your mama?”

“No one,” whispered Violet.

“That’s right. Plus, I’m a good dancer and have excellent grammar. Those are all attributes, just to name a few.”

“Erlene,” shouted Judd from the kitchen, “ain’t we got more biscuits than these?”

The young woman sighed and got up as if she were an old lady whose bones hurt. She stood at the side of the bed for a moment, the light from the kerosene lamp throbbing like an ache against the wall.

“Don’t say ‘ain’t,’ Violet,” she said finally. “ ‘Ain’t’ is a word that makes you sound like you don’t care.”

“Okay, Mama,” whispered Violet, willing to do anything asked of her. “I won’t ever say ‘ain’t.’ ”

She didn’t either, until her mother left, until Violet realized that every time she disobeyed her absent mother, she felt a tiny jolt of power that let her forget, for a breath, how much she missed her. So she said “ain’t” and did all the other things Erlene had told her not to: she chewed her fingernails and burped and didn’t brush her hair and slept in her clothes. She became a dirty, tangle-haired, wild-looking thing; the kind of girl the school nurse always suspected as ground zero for lice and impetigo infestations; the kind of girl who found notes like “You stink!” and “Take a bath!” scattered like land mines inside her desk.

As the years passed, Violet became less a stranger to soap and water, but her improved hygiene couldn’t deflect attention from her freakish growth surge: by age thirteen she was five feet eleven, and it didn’t take Violet long to realize that height does a homely girl no favors.

“Hey, Stretch!”

“Look, a giraffe escaped from the zoo!”

“Hey, Olive Oyl!”

Puberty was not done playing dirty tricks either, deepening Violet’s voice like a boy’s and inspiring her tormenters to add the name “Froggy” to the many in their arsenal, or to ask why Olive Oyl had a voice like Popeye.

Every inch she grew on the outside, every bass note her voice registered, made her smaller on the inside. There were a few kindhearted children who tried to befriend the odd Mathers girl, but her mother’s abandonment, her father’s neglect and cruelty, and her own shame had worked like rust on Violet, corroding her ability to accept amity and eating away the belief that she deserved to have friends.

School was her one respite; Lord, to draw maps of places like Burma and Ceylon and write reports on their major exports! (Rice! Rubber! Hemp!) To listen to Miss Mertz recite (in a practiced British accent) “The Raven” with the window shades pulled! To figure out how many apples Farmer Brown harvested if he had an orchard of 350 trees and each tree yielded approximately 3.8 bushels!

She loved each and every subject, as was evidenced by her report card, on which without fail marched a straight row of A’s.

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Oh My Stars 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is beautifully written and a great evolving story. i love stories about people with afflictions(i myself have a problem) and see how life could change in a split of a dime. This Author had wrote everything exact and summed up all the stories. its by far now my favorite book. whoever reads this wont be sorry.trust me. its very entertaining and once i started reading i could not stop. All the characters sucked me in and i wont forget this book 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure why people said this so sad,
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love Lorna Landvik's writing, and this book is no exception. It is really great, but a bit depressing. I don't mean to sound rude about other crippled people, but I think I would have enjoyed Violet's character more if she still had her arm. I know the book might have not been the same and as great as it is now, and that losing an arm to the machines back then was very common, but I kind of struggled to relate to the loss of her arm. Maybe if she had paralyzed it, which is sort of the same idea, I could've understood her pain on a deeper level. I think the constant use of the word "stump" made it sound kind of ridiculous. I really don't mean to offend any people in that condition, though! This is just my opinion on the book. But really overall it was great! Patty Jane's House of Curl and Angry Housewives Eaing Bon Bons are still my favorite of Lorna's books, though.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book solely because of the author. I liked it but found that is was pretty slow and sad.The characters were real and I was intereted in their lives but it was just a little too slow for me
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This+was+a+story+unlike+any+other.+++Many+tears+and+smiles.
yourotherleft on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
So, here's Oh My Stars, the story of a young girl named Violet growing up during the Great Depression. She was never a pretty girl to start with, and when she loses her arm in a factory accident (this is not a spoiler, it happens on pretty much the first page of the book), she can no longer bear the torment of schoolmates and family alike who malign her missing arm, her horsey face, her somewhat freakish height. Determined that life is no longer worth living considering that nobody loves her, not even her no-good father, she gets on a bus and sets off for California where she has decided to pitch herself off the Golden Gate Bridge. Before that can happen, the bus wrecks in a nowhere sort of town in North Dakota, and the path of Violet's life changes forever. Before she knows it she's managing a the hottest new band that's breaking down barriers to racial integration all over the states and finding love in a place she never would have expected.If I were going to sit here and type you up an "objective" review of Oh My Stars you would probably wonder why I even passed the 50 page mark without jettisoning it in favor of more quality reading. It would be no great challenge to snarkily tear it page from page telling you all about how Landvik relies on a healthy dose of stereotype, depends on you to suspend a great deal of your disbelief, and exaggerates her characters to caricature-like proportions at times. I could point out that the things that happen to Violet are always either so very bad or so very good that it seems totally improbable. I could ponder the lack of a realism in that a band composed of both white and black members could play clubs in the Deep(ish) South in the 30s and somehow play such good music that nobody got killed. You could then comment that "gosh, this book sounds rotten. I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole," and we could close the door on the whole matter.There's just one thing, though. I really liked it. Despite its many flaws, if I had to pick my best book of the year so far, it's likely this one would take the cake ahead of several books that in writing and style are technically much better. But, Oh My Stars, it just has a certain je ne sais quoi that I quickly embraced. Maybe it's Landvik's conversational writing style that flows without interruption and makes the book hard to put down. Maybe it's the foreshadow-y way she uses Violet's first person voice looking back on events interchangeably with a third person that gives the bigger picture as events unfold. Maybe it's the characters who, when not wandering about in caricature-ville, are original, compelling and lovable. I loved Kjel's optimism and his willingness to love even the most unlovable. It was refreshing to read about a guy who was good but not perfect. I loved Austin whose expansive vocabulary is the exact opposite of what people would expect from a black man in the 30s. I even loved Austin's prickly brother Dallas, who could be funny as often as he could be cruel. Watching Violet blossom from the closed up, hopeless, angry person she started out as into the strong, funny girl who can negotiate contracts with club owners is also a pleasure. The unlikely foursome's idyllic summer together seemed as enchanting to me as if I was there myself, and I was swallowed up by the lives of three passionate musicians on the road making a name for themselves. I was so taken by Oh My Stars that I laughed and I cried, and I was sad that it was over even if my objective mind could recognize flaws popping up all over the place.
LibrarianGramma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the top 3 books I have read in the past decade. I loved it. The story was gripping and no where along the way did I want to put it down. It is the one book I ALWAYS recommend to my library patrons.
KinnicChick on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As with all of Ms. Landvik's books (in my opinion, of course), this one had it all. I found myself giggling and gasping and at one point quietly crying. I've said in reviews before that I do not like to be intentionally pulled around by an author through the gamut of emotions and there are certain authors whose work I will not read anymore because I feel that the only thing they are doing is working to get the cry from a reader rather than tell a good story. I wasn't getting that at all here. This was a good story about a real character in Violet Mathers. I give the novel four plus stars and recommend it to others.Violet deals with abandonment and emotional abuse and a terrible accident all before she is an adult but goes on to live a life rich with love and friendship and happiness.
krsball on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite authors, but this was slow.
pandalibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lorna Landvik is one of my all-time favorite authors. Most of Landvik's books take place in Minnesota, but this one travels around the country more with the focus ending up in North Dakota. Violet is an excellent seamstress and is working at a thread factory when she loses her arm in an industrial accident. Life at home with her father isn't all that great and Violet decides to travel by bus to San Francisco to throw herself off the bridge. On the way, there is a bus accident and Violet meets Kjell and Austin and her life will never be the same. Violet is used to being the butt of jokes, being made fun of, or ignored. Meeting Kjell and Austin changes her life in many ways and the book is about Violet's journey of self-discovery. Landvik tells Violet's story with humor, compassion, and love. An excellent read!
kmooresc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As always, Lorna Landvik delivered a great book to her readers with this one. I love her characters! Keep them coming.
punxsygal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Violet Mathers, abandoned by her mother and mistreated by her father, is on a bus to California when it crashes in North Dakota. Her life is never the same after being rescued by two musicians. This novel gives a glimpse of life on the road in the post Depression era, as well as the racial tensions in the country. Landvik never disappoints.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This sat in my library a long time before I read it. I'm glad I finally did. It is about hope and breaking racial barriers in a time when that was nearly impossible. I cheered for Violet. She became a "beautiful" herione. I only wish it could have ended a little differently. A little less sad. But I still highly recommend it as it has happiness in its ending as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good story got a little long and boring in some plces. It has a few vulgar words that show up unexpectedly. Did not care for that.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lovely book
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