MidTown Publishing Inc
Paperback (also available as an e-book), 978-1-6267-7003-4, 264 pgs., $14.99
October 1, 2013
MidTown Publishing Inc
Paperback (also available as an e-book and in hardcover), 978-1-6267-7022-5, 278 pgs., $14.99
August 21, 2020
“Willa had predicted a brief upset, something like a line of clouds developing far out on the horizon, producing nothing but thunder. But as soon as she told her daughter her plans for the Christmas holiday, she saw a real norther begin to roll in.”
Thus is the hook set by Teddy Jones in Jackson’s Pond, Texas (a Women Writing the West award finalist), her family saga about the Jackson family. The clan has been a fixture in ranching, multiple generations who were practically pioneers on Texas’s southern High Plains. The Jacksons, like everyone in northwest Texas’s llano estacado, find themselves facing environmental and economic challenges that pose existential threats to large landholdings and small towns alike.
Jones’s characters are sympathetic, their family dynamics complex and relatable. Willa Jackson, seventy-four, the matriarch of the family and now a great grandmother ready to finally live her life on her own terms, is planning a cruise during the Christmas holiday. Melanie, Willa’s daughter and the source of the “real norther,” is a woman with too many “shoulds” in her life, an assistant school superintendent whose relationship with her adult daughter, Claire, is strained, and who is estranged from her son, Chris.
Jackson’s Pond moves back and forth in time, covering decades between the 1950s and 2000s, relating the history of the family, before it again moves forward to center around the present power struggle between Willa and Melanie. As Willa says to her daughter, “You might be very surprised at the things I think about. Unfortunately for you, you’ll never know what they are because you treat me like a child you’ve been assigned to manage, not like an adult.”
Slanted Light takes up where Jackson’s Pond left off, extending the story of the Jackson family into the 2010s and the next generations, starring Claire’s immediate family: husband J. D., thirteen-year-old daughter Amy, and ten-year-old son Jay Frank. They are confronted with the same concerns of drought and steadily disappearing townships, but they also face the nation’s scourge of drug problems, crime, and mental despair, as well as additional, intimate issues with their young children, including bullying and peer pressure. Claire’s brother, Chris, and grandmother, Willa, play supporting roles.
Slanted Light can stand alone as a complete story, but it benefits the reader to begin with Jackson’s Pond so that the action and characters can be placed in time and context; the reading experience will be richer for it. One of the strengths of Jones’s work is the provision of backstory, which serves as backstop for the actions and reactions of her characters; Jones’s people are never out of character, and their motivations are steeped in personal past. At the center of Slanted Light is Claire and J. D.’s marriage—whether it will survive the stressors—and the effects of “negligent supervision” on Amy, who is hip-deep in puberty (“Jekyll and Hyde days”), and Jay Frank, for whom “hormones haven’t struck [and] parents are still sources of useful information and important rewards.”
Jones has a gift for droll humor (“Willa Jackson had weathered plenty of abrupt changes and had provoked a few in her time.”), pitch-perfect endings, and smart dialogue:
Melanie: And what about preparations? Isn’t a passport necessary? And immunizations? What if you got sick or had an accident?
Willa: It’s a cruise with a thousand other passengers, not the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Sometimes the dialogue is painfully familiar:
J. D.: I’m asking you to take some time out of your busy schedule and act like you give a shit, for once. The [bull] sale’s not for three more weeks.
Claire: You don’t need a wife, you need a secretary. I suggest you hire one. Maybe a maid and a housekeeper, too.
J. D.: You’re right. If I did, I wouldn’t need a wife.
Mysteries spice both novels in well-integrated subplots. Jones also has a few twists lying in wait, expertly teased then nonchalantly slipped into the quick and steadily paced narrative.
Texas’s High Plains are alive on the pages of both novels, playing a starring role as a character central to the plot. Jones’s evocation of the land clearly reflects her love of place. She tackles irrigation, aquifers, and wind turbines, among other things, with just the right amount of context.
The fate of small towns, with defunct chambers of commerce and certain ubiquitous dollar stores starving out the local small businesses, is spot-on. Jones employs an especially effective—even charming—technique of “reproducing” fictional newspaper clippings, which she integrates into the text of both novels. This device works as a sort of shorthand of the past, present, and future of these towns, reflecting changes in the social structures, traditions, and businesses, including the sad demise of local newspapers in so many places.
Jones ties the towns to the land with metaphor:
“As the years passed and the pond aged and shrank, fewer geese settled there each year. In the pink twilight [Willa] could see the low mesquites that were creeping up from the edge of the Caprock moving steadily to surround Jackson’s Pond.”
Jones does not indulge in cheap and easy sentiment or happily ever after, but she has faith in the resilience of the land and its people. She has written two moving and entertaining novels that are both more than the sum of their parts; the saga of the Jackson family is the story of the Texas High Plains.
“Don’t be surprised if things get worse before they get better. But eventually, one way or another, things will get better.”
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