When Home Breaks You Open

Crooked Hallelujah

“I don’t know if it’s suicide or salvation, but this is home.”

Family relationships are complicated. This is clear from the opening paragraph of “Book of the Generations,” the first story of Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah. The book tells the story of a family of Cherokee women and their struggle over decades to survive through physical, mental, and emotional challenges. As we follow the characters, the question of what it means to be a mother, a daughter, and generally a woman in their world is constantly asked as each struggles to understand the interconnected roles for herself.

Crooked Hallelujah. By Kelli Jo Ford. Grove Atlantic. 2020. Hardcover.

How did I get the book?

Much like Private Means, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, this was a Grove galley that I collected after editing an interview Ford gave to include in the mailing’s press kit. I actually read the title back in June for the first time, but I wanted to revisit it to talk about some of the ideas that I could not get out of my mind months later.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!

What did I think?

The characters are the heart of these stories, from the matriarch of the family (“If Marilyn Monroe had come of age in an Indian boarding school and had fierce brown eyes instead of scared blue ones, that would have been young Lula”); to her daughter, Justine, who is constantly searching for something to the point where she cannot keep still; to the granddaughter Reney, everyone’s great hope to break the longstanding cycle of disappointment. Their voices bleed life across every inch of the narrative. It is powerful when we see them alone with their thoughts, but their interactions with one another are really the moments when Ford does her best work.

In their individual journeys, the women constantly struggle to understand one another as much as they do themselves. “My mom told those old stories like she talks about a lot of stuff,” Reney says of Justine, “like it’s a little bit of a favorite joke she loves to tell and a little bit of a sorry memory she wishes she could forget.” Reney adds how her mother will frequently whisper to her, “Don’t be like me. Don’t ever be like me,” making her wonder exactly why. We as readers see Justine’s words stem from moments in other stories where she tries to balance her wish to escape with the need to be loyal to her family: “It was as if her young heart could only hold the two emotions: one, a guilt so deep for betraying her mother that it left her feeling like a human rattle, empty save for a few disconnected bones; and two, a joy so sudden and surprising…that she felt she might pass out.” As Justine gets older and things become even more complicated, her frustration only grows. “It wasn’t fair that she was so angry over it all when every little thought she had would probably require forgiveness.” Ultimately, Justine comes to feel that the only way to see her dreams through might be in her daughter, for Reney to pull off what Justine never quite could; to not be like her in the ways that count.

The relationships between the women are made more complicated by external factors, such as the men that enter their lives, ones who exist in “the weird in-between…not fathers and not not-fathers,” or ones who believe, like leaders in the restrictive church environment where Justine grows up, that “as if by putting her head in the right position [they] could force words into her heart and out of her mouth.” Dismissing these men entirely is often how the women survive. “My father wasn’t a wound or even a scar, not a black hole or a dry desert,” Reney says. “He just wasn’t. Not for me anyway. Mom was my sun and my moon. I was her all, too, and that was us. Her: equal parts beautiful optical illusion and fiery hot star. And me: an imperfect planet she kept as close as she could.” However, as Reney runs away from the source of pain, Justine runs toward it. “When tragedy in the form of seizures or strokes or car wrecks strikes, I load my shit in my truck and make the drive north,” Justine says. “I don’t know if it’s suicide or salvation, but this is home.”

Final verdict?

🌟 4.5/5 — Great Plus

One of the most beautiful things about this book is how the reading experience can be so deeply different. The first time I dove in, I got swept up in the heart-wrenching stories and devoured it in two day’s time like a traditional novel, taking note of the story structure but letting it do little to my brain. On this go around, I indulged in some longer breaks. I let the stories ring out on their own as much as they did together. It was no less gorgeous, just two unique experiences, sort of like when your partner gets a new haircut and then touching the back of their neck feels different for a while, but you love all iterations under your fingers all the same.

Ford also penetrates the prose with so many ideas about the character’s relationships, ones that stung me long after I had underlined them in the pages. For instance, Reney’s complex thoughts on Justine: “maybe her mom didn’t know the first thing about being scared because all she knew was love and mad and love and mad all over again,” and even more striking, “Can I love anything the way that I used to love the mystery of my mother, her strength in suffering?” The final sentiment that they “are together, two parts of some unimaginable whole” makes the whole thing even more wonderfully chilling.

Beyond the book.

I interviewed Ford for Triangle House this week where we discussed the process of putting the stories together as a novel as well as the ongoing conversation this summer about the need for more visibility of BIPOC authors. Desire, deadbeat dads, and other delicious details are all unpacked, too.

A couple of the stories from the collection are also available to read online if you would like a taste before adding the book to your basket. The 2019 Plimpton Prize-winning “Hybrid Vigor” can be found at The Paris Review, a story that Richard Ford called “a high priority…contains beauty and unexpected new intelligence.” Additionally, “You’ll Be Honest, You’ll Be Brave” was recently featured in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading by Erika T. Wurth. Both are an excellent first experience with a writer I cannot wait to hear more from soon.

See you again soon!

Rachel x