17 Jun / Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford [in Shelf Awareness]
Kelli Jo Ford makes a magnificent #OwnVoices debut with Crooked Hallelujah. The book already has significant plaudits: the seventh chapter, “Hybrid Vigor,” won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2019, and her pre-publication manuscript won the 2019 Everett Southwest Literary Award from the University of Central Oklahoma. Additional honors are deservedly plenty for Ford’s novel-in-stories as it follows a Cherokee Nation family, repeatedly broken by choice and circumstance, through the women who remain connected throughout.
In 1974, 15-year-old Justine lives in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma with her aging Granny and embittered mother, Lula. Almost seven years ago, Justine’s father delivered his family to Beulah Springs Holiness Church for service and vanished: “Lula held herself together with a religion so stifling and frightening that Justine … never knew if she was fighting against her mother or God himself.” Her first act of rebellion – sneaking out to meet an older boy – ends in rape. The traumatized, silenced teen births Reney, sealing their symbiotic relationship for life: “Mom was my sun and my moon,” Reney later observes. “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.”
In the decades that follow, Justine works hard to break the cycle of abandonment and neglect for Reney. Despite floundering relationships with useless men, Justine eventually marries Pitch, whom she can’t live without – no matter how many times they leave each other. Justine and Reney move to Texas, where Reney settles into a ready-made family, finding comfort and support in Pitch’s family’s farm, most especially with Pitch’s debilitated mother, another forsaken woman, although she’s still married to his philandering father. As Reney matures, she seems doomed to repeat her mother’s mistakes but eventually finds the strength to drive far, far away.
While never losing sight of Justine and Reney, Ford’s interlinked structure allows for an intriguing, vast cast. Lula’s debilitating illness makes her truculently obsessed with McDonald’s, where she insists she’s treated like a queen. Pitch’s father’s devotion to his prized mare grants him undeserved freedom while his wife remains trapped in their crumbling home. An isolated young man who’s recently lost his mother finds a new family with a lesbian couple. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Ford adroitly, affectingly weaves indigenous history into her spellbinding narrative, exposing displacement, unacknowledged violence, cultural erasure, relentless racism, and socioeconomic disparity. Post-publication, Ford should expect plenty of applause and awards to come.
Shelf Talker: Debut #OwnVoices author Kelli Jo Ford introduces a multi-generational family of Cherokee women in her splendid novel-in-stories, Crooked Hallelujah.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult