Tuesday, June 8, 2010

'Backseat Saints' Resurrects 'gods in Alabama'

Let me be blunt. You need to find a copy of Joshilyn Jackson's new novel Backseat Saints as soon as humanly possible. How you get this done doesn't really matter to me -- local bookstore, Amazon, huge chain bookstore, the library, from a friend. Just do it. Now that I've instructed you on that, let me go one step further and implore you to then pick up and read (again, your source is your own -- choose as you may) her first novel, gods in Alabama.

Whew. Okay. Now that we've got that out of the way, let me explain why you should do this. Jackson is that rare breed of writer whose books I can actually read more than once. And I don't re-read books. Ever. Well, obviously in this case, I have, but you get the picture. It's very rare. I generally think it's boring, I don't care how good the book was. (Or movie or story... One shot. That's all my brain will usually give you.)

Background: I went on vacation at the end of May. I took more than 20 books with me. (That isn't a joke. I read a lot, but also most of them I hadn't started, and what could be worse than being hours from home and hating every book you have with you? 20 books = lots of choices. And very little chance you'll hate every single one.) Jackson's gods in Alabama (which I had already read) was one of those many books.

Even More Background: I read this book just after it was released five years ago. I remember liking it, a lot; enough that I've read everything Jackson has published since. I emailed a request for an ARC of Backseat Saints early this spring, and was thrilled when I received a copy in the mail. I read it as fast as I could, then immediately wrote my (glowing) review and posted it. Like three months ago. But, I had a plan. Re-read the (somewhat of a) partner novel gods in Alabama, then write another review. And then gods in Alabama languished on my bookshelves, in a semi-waiting state for another two months.

So finally I decided to re-read the book in May, which took an act of Congress in and of itself. I practically had to force myself into it -- I brought it & only it down to the dock with me from the cabin where I was staying for vacation. Ha! That way if I couldn't bring myself to re-read, I had to walk all the way back to get something else. (Thus, I was much more likely to just keep reading!)

I needn't have worried. I didn't remember the story as it unfolded at all, and re-reading it after reading Backseat Saints was simply amazing. I'm not even sure how Jackson could have examined a single situation more differently (or more expertly) in order to tell it from two totally opposite points of view, but she did so beautifully.

Let me explain: gods in Alabama is the story of Arlene Fleet. Arlene is an Alabama transplant living in Chicago, when Rose Mae Grandee (nee Lolley) shows up on her doorstep asking questions. After high school, Arlene fled her small town, where she had committed an unspeakable act against football star Jim Beverly. She began calling her self Lena and didn't go home for Christmas or anything else for nine years. When Rose Mae turns up seeking answers about Jim's whereabouts, Arlene knows she now has to face the demons she's been fleeing all these years.

Flash forward five years to Backseat Saints. Here's an excerpt from my previous review:

Rose Mae Lolley is a deep southern gal. Not a lady-like belle like the pre-war Scarlett, but a rough and tumble girl from deep-south Alabama. She escaped from her own brand of hell just after high school, and she ran until she met her match -- the cynical, strong Thom Grandee, whose only weakness is his gun-store owning daddy. Newly reinvented as Ro Grandee, Jackon's protagonist fills her days helping out in her father-in-law's store and having morning coffee dates with her elderly next-door neighbor. She cooks and cleans, and makes nice for her husband Thom. But the Grandees' marriage isn't all it appears to be, as only the nurses in the ER know all too well.

When Ro reaches her breaking point, Rose Mae reappears and begins making trouble. An encounter with a tarot-card reading gypsy leads Rose down a new path, one in which she must make a choice between herself and her marriage. The two personas living inside Rose battle one against the other, and Rose is spurred into action. Her search for self and freedom take her from Chicago to small town Alabama and back across the country to California.
Backseat Saints is, in a sense, the version of Arlene's story as outsiders knew it -- Rose Mae's version of Jim Beverly as her high school sweetheart and all-around nice guy, versus the portrait Arlene painted of him in gods in Alabama. It's also Rose Mae's story all her own, just as gods in Alabama was solely Arlene's. Both books are excellent stand-alone novels. But the two together are breathtaking.

Here are some lines from gods in Alabama to spur you into action (getting copies of both books for your very own), and to illustrate the deep connection between the two novels:

  • First lines: "There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches."

  • Then further down the first page: "But that was before God let Rose Mae Lolley show up on my doorstep, dragging my ghosts and her own considerable baggage with her."

From Jackson's website, a chart explaining links between the two novels:

Years ago Jackson wrote a short piece of fiction that introduces a cousin of Arlene's (possibly Fat Agnes, but unnamed in this story) as narrator and gives even more insight into Arlene's Alabama roots called "Little Dead Uglies". Check out Jackson's book tour information to find out when and if she'll be close enough for you to meet the author herself. Jackson also shared a great backstory on the making of the cover of Backseat Saints on A Good Blog is Hard to Find. She shares daily thoughts, book reviews, author interviews, and book giveaways on her own blog Faster Than Kudzu.


  1. Okay, I just re-read this post cause I'm catching up on your blog, and decided to click the link back to this. I absolutely LOVED "gods in Alabama," but I had to tell this because I almost didn't even read it from the very first sentence! Being an English teacher, I'm sure you can appreciate my utter HATE for the use of the phrase "and also." As soon as I read this...in the FIRST SENTENCE...I thought I was going to have to throw it away!! SO SO SO glad I didn't tho :) Great book, and I have taken a love for Joshilyn Jackson since reading it.

    1. One of the things that's so great about Jackson is her use of dialect and her ear for dialogue in the south... Which, unfortunately, sometimes means incorrect usage! She is amazing; I LOVED Backseat Saints, but her newest (A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty) may be her best. You have to read it!



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