It’s here. The moment I know you’ve all been waiting for. I’m going to write my review of Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson and try not to ooze fangrrrl all over my blog pages. I’m a big fan of Ms. Jackson’s books. That’s no secrect to anyone who knows me. Part of the reason I fell in love with her writing is her sense of place. Location plays a big part in her stories, with the towns and states and regions almost palpable characters themselves. And being a Southerner herself, the South is the largest stage for her characters. Being a Southerner myself, I relate well to her books, or more accurately, to her characters, because they are infused with the best and the worst the South has to offer.
It doesn’t end there, though. There are lots of Southern authors, and I have read and enjoyed many of their stories without getting an author-crush on them like I have with her. Part of my love affair is that I think she is a stellar writer – I love her turns of phrase and her character and plot development; I have compared her to Carson McCullers more than once. Part of it, and probably fueling my obsession, is her blog, Faster than Kudzu, where she bares her heart and soul for all the world to see, making her readers feel like personal friends (and I do, though I’ve only met her once so I’m obviously not really). But the part that resonates the most is that she feels the same way about these Southern United States as I do. She loves the compassion and beauty and wackiness; she’s frustrated by the bigotry and violence and quiet cutting insults. And all of that, the good and the ugly, is on display in her writing.
In Joshilyn’s first book, gods in Alabama, there is a small character named Rose Mae Lolley. She’s in three scenes in the whole book, and my impression of her upon reading that book was of a tiny, wild-eyed, batshit crazy girl on some sort of spiritual quest. She’s a minor character in the book, but she is the impetus that drives the main character, Arlene Fleet, to embark on the journey that’s at the heart of the whole story. So small, but significant. And apparently, Joshilyn couldn’t get this crazy-ass character out of her head. She wanted to know this woman’s story. So, in her fourth book, she set out to find Rose Mae’s story – and what a story it is.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but it’s been well-documented in the media that this is a story that keeps coming back to the domestic violence that has governed Rose Mae’s life. The book begins, “It was an airport gypsy who told me that I had to kill my husband. She may have been the first to say the words out loud, but she was only giving voice to a thing I’d been trying not to know for a long, long time.” (Side note: the author is an absolute genius with first sentences. Every one of her books begins with a sentence that immediately pulls you in and makes you want more.) Rose Mae – or Ro Grandee as she’s know in her married life – listens to the airport gypsy tell her that if she doesn’t kill her husband, he’s going to kill her, and she knows it’s true. She lives in perpetual fear of making the wrong face, saying the wrong word that will set her husband off so that he hits her again. Her body under her clothes always looks marbled, with the new bruises dark and angry on top of the old bruises that are yellowing and greening. So she begins plotting his death, or her escape, or both.
Her journey takes her through her dog losing a leg, a drastic haircut, a secret trip to Chicago…and lot of lessons learned, about her abusive father, the mother who left her, her so-called perfect high school boyfriend, and (of course) herself. It is absolutely about an abused woman – and word of warning, some of the scenes in the book are truly brutal. But even more, I think it’s about freedom and realizing that you’re the only one who can free yourself.
I think this is Joshilyn’s best book yet. After reading Backseat Saints, I had to go back and re-read gods in Alabama with my new perspective on Rose Mae (and it really was a fascinating, different read now that I knew her). And gods is a fantastic book, but there is a marked improvement in her craft and technique between her first and her latest book. Highly recommended!