In June of this year, Knoxville native Heather Ream published her memoir, Lunchladies Bought My Prom Dress. Her first published work, the book explores her life up through high school, living in Knoxville, while navigating the challenges that poverty presents. It is a story of struggle, of hope, and of finding humor even in the most difficult situations. And there is lots of humor throughout nearly every page, reminding me in tone of books by Fanny Flagg. I spoke to her to learn more about her story and about the book.
She began work on the book in March of 2022 “as a way to work through grief.” Her mother, who is a central figure in the story, died earlier this year after a long stay in a nursing home, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and vascular dementia. “I didn’t want her story to be the one of the illnesses.”
As she wrote, she read the chapters aloud to her mother telling her, “People are going to know what a wonderful mother you were.” She said the story, “morphed into something bigger than me. It became a love letter to anyone who grew up feeling different, questioning their religious faith, who grew up being loved by flawed people in imperfect circumstances.”
And religion does play a prominent role in her life and in the book. Her father worked for a religious radio station in Knoxville and the family was firmly entrenched in their faith. Still, to say she harbored unusual thoughts and perspectives about religion and religious institutions. Her description of the Jesus of her teen years as Kurt Cobain-like figure might rattle your average pastor. Of the Christian trinity, she said she loved Jesus, but wasn’t sure she liked the other two.
Still, it’s not a religious book. “I’ve always had one foot in the religious world and one foot in the secular world. I respect everyone’s way of trying to figure out the hard stuff.” She said she considers herself to be a progressive Christian, attempting to separate out the cultural layer that has been added to the faith.
Still, she says, “I can’t tell my story without putting those big questions in.” She says she’s made peace with what she believes and how it is different from what she was taught. She said she could not avoid confronting issues such as abuse, homophobia, and opulence inside churches while people in the pews and outside the doors went hungry.
The reactions of the people included in the book have been “overwhelmingly positive,” she said, adding “I don’t feel like I have any villains in this story beyond institutions.” She also used pseudonyms and, as best she could, got permission from her mother. He sister has always been supportive but, at her request, isn’t quoted in the book.
Beyond those included in the book, others have also responded positively. Some say they can relate to passages in the book, while others say they are inspired by the hopefulness. She’s heard from educators that the book should be required reading for teachers to give them insight into what poor children went through. The International Pulpwood queens and Timber Guys Book Club as selected her book to be a selection of the month in 2024.
She also considers it a love story to the Knoxville of her youth, in the 1980s and 1990s and she wants readers to connect with the city. She said she remembered walking through Market Square in the mid 90s on Saturdays and hardly running into another person. She’s stop in Watsons or drop into the book store for a copy of Metro Pulse. Still, she felt there was latent energy in the city even then and parallels its emergence from its dark period with her own. She did live in Atlanta for nearly a decade, which he is where she met her husband Ben. She convinced him to move here in 2014 and he’s grown to love it as well. She said the city “beckons you back.”
The book concludes as Heather prepares to graduate. My question, and apparently she’s gotten it from others is, “What happened next?” She said she did complete her plans to get a BA in Theatre from UTK. She has worked in administrative health care for nearly the last twenty years. Regarding what happens next, she said she’s given herself until the end of this month to take a break, but next month brings a return to writing and it’s just possible we might expect a sequel.
She also said she has made peace with her story and she’s found a great husband. Still, she added, it was not a “linear path out of poverty. Mama worked hard, mama was smart, but we had third-hand furniture.” She thanks Social Security survivor’s benefits, food stamps and more that helped get her family through. She said marriage is a great help and is a strong supporter of marriage equality. She added, “Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps seems like billionaire non-sense.”
In the end she said the book is a “universal scrappy survival story. I had to learn how to navigate a world that seemed set to diminish me.”
You can find the book in a range of spots including Union Ave books, Visit Knoxville Visitor Center, Cedar Springs Christian Store, Ijams Nature Center Gift shop, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online.