Monday, June 8, 2009

Nose in a Book: gods in Alabama

I gave myself plenty of time to read my discussion group's July choice, gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. Instead, it was like opening a whole bag of potato chips-- I know that there's supposed to be 15 adequate servings in that bag, but instead, I devoured the whole thing in two sittings!

Just "one more" chapter continuously kept me turning the pages, until I was done in the wee hours of the morning. Jackson certainly has learned the important technique of keeping tension on every page. As the main character, Arlene, deals with her overbearing, dysfunctional family and her own real and imagined demons, I could hear myself saying, "Oh no, what now?!" And to find out, I kept reading.

Arlene left her family and, she thought, her past, far behind in Alabama when she escaped to Yankee country. While in Chicago, she focuses on her education and keeping her deal with God. Part of that deal involves being celibate, even though she has been involved with Burr for two years. Luckily, I didn't need to be as patient as this saintly boyfriend to finally find out why Arlene would agree to such a hardship. All indications point to the celibacy being one of the problems in their relationship. It is just another wall that Burr feels Arlene has built around her, not letting him in. As the story unfolds, you start to understand why she has made these choices. It's all related to the reasons she can't go home again.

Arlene's walls have gotten so sturdy over the past decade, she's boxed herself in. She's on the verge of losing her boyfriend and her past being exposed if she doesn't break through. As those walls begin to crumble, the chapters alternate between her Alabama past and her driving-to-Alabama present. Layers of the emotional mystery of the past unravel, and we watch as Arlene tries to determine what it all means to who she is today. She's kept secrets for so long, to protect herself and to protect her family. When are secrets meant to be spoken?

Arlene is a very interesting character. There were times when I wasn't even sure if she was likable-- some of her actions seemed so selfish in the beginning that I started thinking, well, no wonder... if you act like that. But Jackson paces the story in such a way that you begin to understand why she did what she did, and how it's going to take something pretty big to fix the damage done. I was impressed with the bravery to put Arlene on the page, because there were parts of her that, on the surface, were unlikable and over the top.

There's much discussion between Burr and Arlene, especially as they drive to meet her family, about race. Arlene is white, Burr is black. Arlene figures her racist family will see the man in her life as another slap in their faces-- a revolt against everything they believe in. But the fact that Arlene only crossed paths with him because of his southern sounding mama shows that there was something in her that was trying to unite her past and present to make her whole.

I went online as soon as I finished gods in Alabama to see what else Jackson has written. I was surprised to learn that this was her debut novel. She has a few more,Between, Georgia and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, which was recently released in paperback. One or both will be in my bag this summer.


P.S. Click Here to read my Helium review of gods in Alabama.

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