gods in Alabama

gods in Alabama is Joshilyn Jackson’s first novel. The whole package, as you can see, is meant to give you the sense of a fun southern girl out for a good time. That’s what I expected, at any rate. I picked it up because I knew the author is a southerner, and I’m making a short and sweet study of modern southern authors’ narrative voices. To be truthful, I didn’t have high expectations.

gods in Alabama isn’t without flaw — one  in particular that I’ll mention briefly. But it is a well told, engaging story, complex in interesting ways. The main character — Arlene to her family, Lena to her boyfriend — tells her story with passion that stays clear of the pathetic. Arlene has been living and going to school in Chicago for ten years — she left Alabama immediately after high school and made a promise to God that she’d never return. God seemed satisfied with that, but Arlene’s Aunt Florence was not. Pressured on one side by her aunt and on the otherside by her boyfriend (it’s time for her to make a commitment, and introduce him to her family), and shocked by the sudden appearance of a old nemesis at her door, Arlene and Burr head south.

The story of how she came to make such sweeping promises to God comes out in bits, of course, sometimes funny, sometimes moving. Arlene’s secrets take a couple of turns in the telling, some of them unexpected. The story is on one level about Arlene’s relationship with Burr, but the lion’s share of the conflict is her relationship to the women in her family. There’s a good dose of moral ambiguity to deal with here, which brings me to the flaw I mentioned.

There’s a strong urge, when you’re writing a complicated story, to tie up all the loose ends. Answer all the questions about what happened to who when and how. Jackson gives into that temptation (in my opinion) a little too much. There are a series of plot twists toward the end of the novel, one of which went just a bit too far, and strained my credibility almost to the breaking point. I have the sense that Jackson felt this last twist was necessary in order to cement the bond between Arlene and one of her female relatives.

It is a great story and so the book is certainly worth reading, so if you do, come back here and talk to me about that final twist. I’d be interested in other people’s opinions.

6 Replies to “gods in Alabama”

  1. I have picked up this book but havent read it yet so I’ll be back and let you know. Another author who writes about southern families that I have really enjoyed is Deborah Smith. Especially “A Place to Call Home”. I recommend this one all the time. Let me know what you think.

  2. I’m not familiar with this one, but honestly, I get really frustrated with this type of storyline, which I’ve seen used in other books and movies. The character, born and bred in the South, moves away as a young adult to make their life elsewhere, somewhere infinitely more modern and cultured (cough). Circumstances conspire to make them return home, where they have to put up with all the “wackiness” of life in the deep South before they can make it back to civilization. Ultimately, they discover that life is only truly worth living in their native homeland.

    I know I’m generalizing here, and as I said I haven’t read this particular book, but I always wonder if these people have ever actually been to the South.

    Two writers that I remember enjoying when I was younger were Anne Rivers Siddons (especially “Peachtree Road”) and Josephine Humphries (“Rich in Love”). The former hasn’t held up so well with the years, but I still love to read Humphries’ work.

  3. Elisabeth — Thank you for putting that so clearly. It hadn’t quite come together for me, but you’re right, that’s a dominant plot/theme and it’s tired.

    However, this novel doesn’t fall into that category. Things do conspire to send Arlene home, but the visit isn’t just a showcase to parade out funny characters. There’s a real set of conflicts. And, she doesn’t come to the conclusion that life is best in the south; she goes back to Chicago.

    I’ll look up Humphries. Thanks for the rec.

  4. re Humphreys: I liked “The Fireman’s Fair.” And googling her name for titles also reminds me to mention the memoir “Gal: A True Life” (for which Humphreys wrote the forward.)

  5. I’m all for writers who show the South in a true light instead of the botch job most of the media makes of it. I’ll have to check this one out and see how it holds up, and I’ll try to Deborah Smith novel as well. Thanks for the recommendations–

  6. Sara–I just want to recommend a couple of books with a wonderful “Southern voice”–Clyde Edgerton’s “Raney” and “Walking Across Egypt”. These are gentle, humorous books about small-town North Carolina people and the conflict between old ways and new. Edgerton pokes some fun at Southern Baptist hangups, but in an affectionate way; still, I seem to remember that it got him fired from his job at a Baptist-run college.

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