Review: Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“It wasn’t crazy to me. Being her daughter was all I’d ever known.”

Crooked Hallelujah – published by Grove Altantic, July 14th 2020

It’s 1974 in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and fifteen-year-old Justine grows up in a family of tough, complicated, and loyal women, presided over by her mother, Lula, and Granny. After Justine’s father abandoned the family, Lula became a devout member of the Holiness Church – a community that Justine at times finds stifling and terrifying. But Justine does her best as a devoted daughter, until an act of violence sends her on a different path forever. Crooked Hallelujah tells the stories of Justine–a mixed-blood Cherokee woman– and her daughter, Reney, as they move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country in the hopes of starting a new, more stable life in Texas amid the oil bust of the 1980s. However, life in Texas isn’t easy, and Reney feels unmoored from her family in Indian Country. Against the vivid backdrop of the Red River, we see their struggle to survive in a world–of unreliable men and near-Biblical natural forces, like wildfires and tornados–intent on stripping away their connections to one another and their very ideas of home.

In lush and empathic prose, Kelli Jo Ford depicts what this family of proud, stubborn, Cherokee women sacrifice for those they love, amid larger forces of history, religion, class, and culture. This is a big-hearted and ambitious novel of the powerful bonds between mothers and daughters by an exquisite and rare new talent.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Brilliant, heartbreaking, let down by the ending.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is a book about family, or rather a book about mother-daughter-relationships. Following four generations of Cherokee women in their attempts to live their lives and to make better choices possible for their daughters, this book is focussed on the peculiar relationships women can have with their mothers. The story is told chronologically but jumping forward in time, sometimes in first person, sometimes in close third person, and as such fairly introspective. Kelli Jo Ford chose to tell every chapter from the perspective of the daughter in the relationship she focusses for this moment – and I adored that choice.

I thought this was excellent – especially when Ford focussed the difficult relationship between Lula (hyper religious and often harsh) and her daughter Justine (who has her own daughter at 16). I loved the parallels between these two women who seem at first glance very different but who both try their very best to change their daughters’ trajectories for the better. Both make the best of the limited choices they have – and this limitation of choices due to poverty is at the core of this book. Justine who is prickly, difficult, lonely, strong remained my favourite until the end.

There were two things that did not completely work for me. There is a chapter in the middle of the book that is only tangentially related to the rest of the book and that I found gratuitous in its depiction of homophobic violence. I also thought that the final chapter taking place in the near future in a climate change ravaged Texas, did not completely work. I understand the thematic relevance and I loved the mirroring Ford achieved here, I just would have liked to not have it take place in the future. But even if I have slight problems, this book was for many pages absolutely brilliant and I love the tenderness Ford’s writing has for her characters. Even when the women fight, they always, obviously love each other and only want to help each other.

Content warnings: rape, miscarriage, tubal pregnancy, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, Christian fundamentalism, death of loved ones, death of animals (horse), teenaged pregnancy, robbery, homophobia, epilepsy

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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