Kelli Jo Ford
Hardback (also available as an e-book), 978-0-8021-4912-1, 304 pgs., $26
July 14, 2020
The bond between mothers and daughters is often formidable and strong yet volatile and crushing as these women crash together and tilt away just as quickly, never quite severing that tie that binds.
In Crooked Hallelujah, Kellie Jo Ford takes on the daunting task of weaving that unbreakable bond between three generations of mothers and daughters. In the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, at fifteen years of age and after a single disastrous night, Justine brings her daughter, Reney, into her world of hardship and poverty. Justine’s mother, Lula, is a member of the Holiness Church, but Justine falls away from that strict lifestyle and moves Reney back and forth between her hometown in Oklahoma and her tumultuous life with her husband, Pitch, in Texas. Lula, Justine, and Reney fight each other throughout the years, yet no distance and no man can keep them apart.
In an explosive and deeply emotional debut novel, Kelli Jo Ford keeps a tight rein on the prose and lures the reader into the world of these women, held together by the threads of blood, anger, and the complex duty to self and to each other. Justine appears to be the nexus in this story, caught between her loyalty and frustration toward her intensely religious mother and her fierce passion for Reney, who eventually spreads her wings and flies as far away as the invisible chain linking her to family will allow. While Crooked Hallelujah outlines the adversity and poor choices of these women in Cherokee Nation, the story is filled with ardent beauty in serving ailing and aging mothers and forgiving them for their harsh judgement and unrelenting desire to make life better for the daughters that follow.
The narration in Crooked Hallelujah teeters between choppy and smooth as silk, based on the specific point of view, providing an undulating movement that mimics the solid yet tough love for each other that flows through the veins of these women. The dialogue often comes across as lamenting as the women express resentment at life’s fickleness and unfairness and then switches to a gentle caress as each daughter acknowledges her mother’s strengths and weaknesses. Toward the end of the story, the apocalyptic scenario in the small town of Bonita provides poignant imagery of how the lives and loves of these women change and collapse into chaos yet remain linked by that resilient thread that refuses to unravel, even when everything has devolved into wreckage and everyone else is gone.
While Crooked Hallelujah is short on humor and lightheartedness, and at least one subplot needs a bit more closure, readers will appreciate and perhaps relate to the realistic breakdown of relationships within families and eventual reconciliation, or at least an attempt at compromise and acceptance, that brings everyone back together. Real life between mothers and daughters is both exquisite and messy, and Ford masterfully shows that amidst all the disarray and bruised lives is a love so strong that nothing and no one can extinguish it.
Ford captures the tension and grace of these relationships, crafting an exceptional story that places the reader firmly in the midst of these lives, feeling the heartache and hope across the pages.
Kelli Jo Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, the Everett Southwest Literary Award, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Award at Bread Loaf, a National Artist Fellowship by the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and a Dobie Paisano Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, the Missouri Review, and the anthology Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, among other places.