Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford: A review
Kelli Jo Ford's debut novel is set in Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and in North Texas during the 1980s oil bust and later. Ford herself is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and she draws upon her familiarity with that culture in telling the stories of four generations of Cherokee women. The primary focus of the stories is on the third and fourth generations, mother Justine and daughter Reney. We see Justine's mother and grandmother as they relate to and interact with these two characters. The narrative is constructed as a series of stories, a method of storytelling that can go seriously off the rails in the wrong hands, but Ford mostly keeps her chronicle on track by making Justine and Reney the linchpins of it.
We meet Justine at age fifteen. She is a talented athlete but her mother won't allow her to play basketball because men would see her legs. Her mother, Lulu, is a devout Holy Roller and she makes her daughter attend church every time the doors are open. The girl must also wear the approved attire for women of that church, long skirts, long sleeves, long hair tucked up into a distinctive bun. The church is charismatic and speaking in tongues is considered the normal practice in their services. Justine rebels by hiding more modern clothing that she changes into at school and she sneaks out at night to meet a man. The man is almost twice her age and when he rapes her on their "date" Justine tells no one because she believes she will be blamed and, in truth, she thinks it is her fault because she sneaked out and met him willingly. As luck would have it, she becomes pregnant as a result of the encounter. She only belatedly realizes what is happening to her body and, again, she doesn't tell anybody. Eventually, her grandmother sees and understands.
Once Justine understands that she is going to have a baby, she becomes fiercely attached to that new life and when Reney arrives on the scene, she is like a miracle to her mother. She makes the best she can of her situation, finds a job, and plans to raise her daughter on her own, with the help of her mother and grandmother.
Fathers are mostly absent in these stories. The men who attach themselves to these women's lives are generally irresponsible losers who are either intentionally or unintentionally cruel. Justine eventually hooks up with a Texan named Pitch, who turns out to be the best of the long line of men she has slept with over the years, but that's not saying much. She moves with her daughter to Texas and that is where Reney mostly grows up.
Reney is a good student and she has an affinity for horses. She has ambitions to go to college, but when a Pell grant falls through, she ends up working at a Dairy Queen. Meanwhile, her mother holds down minimum wage jobs in factories and honky-tonks, often two or more part-time jobs at a time in order to piece together a living wage.
Reney follows in her mother's footsteps in getting involved with and eventually marrying the wrong man. But then she does something different: She comes to her senses and divorces him. She still has ambitions to go to college and she drifts out west where she does finally get a chance to go to college and where she meets a man who isn't a loser. He's a college professor and it seems as though her story might have a happily ever after as they settle in Idaho. Still, she keeps getting pulled back to her crisis-laden family in Oklahoma.
Quite a lot happens in this narrative, but Ford tells it quietly, without embellishment. There are moments when one might wish for a little more embellishment, but Ford has her plan and she sticks to it. The book is best when it deals with those intimate moments between Justine and Reney and between those two and the grandmother and great-grandmother. The culture described by the writer felt very familiar to me. It seemed not so different from the one in which I grew up and so I felt right at home reading this book. I liked it very, very much.
There were only two things that bothered me about the book: The ending didn't really give the feeling of a climax that I wanted and there was one story (one chapter) that just felt totally out of place in the narrative. That story featured a lesbian couple who moved to Indian Country. The couple had nothing to do with anything else that happened in the book and they felt completely unrelated and extraneous. I couldn't see any purpose in this bit being included. They are mentioned briefly in one other chapter as Justine and Reney are driving north from Texas to Oklahoma ahead of an apocalyptic drought and fire. The lesbian couple is on the road as well, but they have with them a baby that they have adopted. By the time they get to Oklahoma they seem to have ditched the baby because we hear no more about him/her. The whole thing was just a jarring note in an otherwise smooth symphony and it caused me to drop one of the five stars that I would otherwise have rated the book.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars