Ever since I found out in October that Jessica Null Vealitzek, author of the blog True Stories, would be releasing a book this April, I couldn’t wait to read it. If the writing on her blog is that good, what could she do with a book? When I got the chance to get an advance reading copy of her novel, The Rooms Are Filled, I jumped at it—and book reviews are not my specialty. Her blog has always inspired me, made me stop and think, and even caused me to grab the tissues, which to me is a sure sign of good writing. I hoped her book would do the same.
It didn’t disappoint.
The Rooms Are Filled begins in Minnesota at the scene of nine-year-old Michael’s suddenly shattered life. As his father lies dying on the ground, Michael thinks the paramedics aren’t careful enough. And he doesn’t want those strangers around his father. And from there, I didn’t want Michael to come to any harm or pain again.
When he and his mother, Anne, move to Illinois to make ends meet, Michael struggles to fit in with classmates. There his only friends are Tina, who lives across the street and comes with her own set of problems, and his teacher, Julia Parnell, new to town and trying to fit in by not standing out.
When introduced to Julia for the first time, I immediately fell in love with her too. And how could I not? She drives into the story “gripping the steering wheel as though it kept her from falling out of the car and rolling down the highway.” Struggling with her sexual identity and running away from her past, Julia encounters her own set of bullies.
Vealitzek wrote these characters with such care, you’d swear they were people she knew all her life. I rooted for them and hoped others didn’t get their way. You have to see for yourself whether everything is tied up nicely in the end.
As with all good books I’ve read, I wanted to know the inspiration behind this story. This time I could ask.
Vealitzek said the book is loosely based on a childhood experience of her father, who moved from a Minnesota farm to working-class Franklin Park, Illinois, in the early 1950s. Neighborhood kids and classmates teased him for his slight lisp and said he sounded like a “hick.” His teacher was a rumored lesbian and the kids made fun of her too. She helped Vealitzek’s father build confidence by encouraging him to read aloud. It worked.
I love it when a good story and good writing come together. The two don’t always come hand in hand, but Vealitzek weaves a heartfelt story with imagery and characters that stayed with me long after I read the last page.