Friday, June 30, 2006

"There are gods in Alabama..." says Joshilyn Jackson

I can't believe I'm doing this again. I really can't. But alas, it can not be helped. You see, I am now smack dab in the middle of novelist-worship, and this is my altar. I am doing another book review. Right after the last one. And it's the same darn author. I've never done this before, this back-to-back review thing, and I don't think I've ever plugged an author more than once. You can check if you must, but I'm pretty sure I'm right on this one. There's a reason for that. It's because I don't do many reviews. Because I read so very much, I think I've become almost too stingy with my praise. If I don't get a feel for a story within the first 10 pages, I will stick with it to the very end, but I won't remember a thing about it an hour after it is finished. There aren't a whole lot of books that rate a review here, and there are very few authors that I ever mention more than once. You know my favorites, of course. I mean, The Cherry is at the top of the list, followed closely by any other Cherry authors I find. Well, my very Cherry friends, I have a secret for you... I totally adore the writing of Joshilyn Jackson!

For as much as I liked Between, Georgia, I was a little afraid that I wouldn't like gods in Alabama quite as much. I mean, it was Joshilyn's first book, right? How on earth could it be as good as her second book? We all know that writers take time to find themselves, to develop, to really deliver, right? Wrong, my friends. So very very wrong. Not all writers need that time. Some of them run the ball back for a touchdown from their own 1 yard line on the very first play of the game! Joshilyn Jackson is one of those.

If you haven't read this book yet, don't read any further, because I'm bound to give away some SPOLIERS, ok? (After reading this through, I realize that I really haven't put any true spoilers in here. So if you want to, go ahead and read this one through. It's safe.) I want you to know that this is unintentional, but inevitable. I simply must discuss this book. There is no alternative.

To anyone that has ever lived in the South, especially in the Deep South, or in any small town, really, the first paragraph of the book swallows you up whole. You know, or remember, those gods that are mentioned, or you have your own slightly different list of gods from your own town. Maybe it's a high school hockey goalie ins tead of a quarterback. Maybe it's fast cars instead of pickup trucks. But really, you know the gods of which she speaks. You revered them. You worshipped at their shrines, just like I did. They still have a hold on you, even though Jesus may or may not have a bigger hold now. In your heart of hearts, you know there are gods.

Arlene/Lena knows this as well. "There are gods in Alabama..." This is her mantra. She has a secret, she's made a deal with the big "g" GOD, yet she still practices this refrain in her head for the better part of ten years. When a person from her past shows up in her very Yankee new life asking questions about something Arlene has tried unsuccessfully to forget, the power of those gods is unleashed all over her poor, guilty, Southern soul. She hightails it back home to Alabama, thinking her journey will be anything but sweet. Those gods have some surprises up their sleeves though. See, Arlene did a Bad Thing when she was younger. That Bad Thing prompted her to make that deal with God. She kept up her end of the deal, but I think she was always scared that He might not keep up His end. When her past shows up on her doorstep, she's pretty sure that He has called off the Deal, and she must now face up to that Bad Thing.

When Arlene gets to Alabama with her boyfriend/pretend husband Burr by her side, she has to start facing her past. That past is rolled up in a family that includes a crazy momma, a perfect cousin, a sweet uncle, and the steeliest aunt anyone not familiar with steely Southern aunts has ever seen. I've known my share of steely Southern aunts. I have two of my own. But really, Arlene's Aunt Florence has them beat hands down. Her past also includes her unapologetically racist family, though they are really just mentioned, not heard from. And it includes the kudzu. We can't forget the kudzu, ok?

I fell in love with Arlene. I liked Lena, her Yankee all-grown-up self, too, but really, I loved Arlene. I could feel her shift from Lena, self-assured Deal-keeper, to Arlene, guilty little Bad Thing doer, as soon as she waved goodbye to Tennessee and hello to Alabama. Arlene has a quiet strength, a vulnerability, and a crazy streak, that would seem fake in any other character. It works for her. I felt her pain, her rage, her joy, her guilt, her passion, her jealousy, her indignation, her love. I became her for the day. It wasn't hard to do, Joshilyn made it virtually painless to slip into her skin.

I loved the alternating timelines of the chapters in this book. It starts in present day, then it eases you back in time 17 years. During those flashback chapters that aren't really written like flashbacks, you get to know Arlene as she was at 15. You get to live, every other chapter, inside her head, seeing everything that led up to the Bad Thing. You already know what the Bad Thing is. You find out at the very beginning of the second chapter, even though its pretty well spelled out in the first. It's not a secret anymore, because Joshilyn puts it right out there at the beginning. It's almost as if Joshilyn is saying,"This is my story, and she is my girl. She did this Bad Thing, I'm telling you that right now. But you may not judge her just yet. She's lived with the guilt for a good many years, and you will hear her out, every last word of her story, before I allow you to sit in your stifling glass house and pass judgement on her."

And that's exactly what I did. I sat there, transfixed, as the drama played out around me. I breathed in that fertile Alabama soil, I slurped that sweet tea (really, is there any other kind?), and I listened to all of the things that Aunt Flo didn't say, until I'd heard every last word.

When it was over, when it was just me staring at that very last page, I sat very still and could think of only one thing: There are gods in Alabama. And they bestowed a gift on Joshilyn Jackson. And I will praise them forevermore.

If you really need me to say it, I will say it for you now. GET. OUT. OF. YOUR. CHAIR. AND. GET. YOUR. BUTT. TO. YOUR NEAREST. BOOKSTORE. AND. GET. THIS. BOOK.

The gods will smile down upon you when you do.

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