Arlene Fleet has been keeping her promises to God for twelve years and avoiding a visit home to Alabama for ten when a familiar face forces her to begin breaking those promises. And thus begins Joshilyn Jackson's debut novel, GODS IN ALABAMA. Those gods are the things that loom large in the southern imagination, like football and Jesus, and Jackson brings the new South to life with authentic dialogue, Arlene's perfect descriptions of her Aunt Florence, life in a small Alabama town, and the expectations of southern girls and women. The women in Arlene's life include her aunt, a mentally ill mother, and her beautiful cousin Clarice. All three still live in Alabama and eagerly await Arlene's arrival.
Arlene (Lena in her adopted town of Chicago) may have held to her dubious covenant with God, but she has spent the last ten years breaking some other rules that mystify and anger her family. Namely, not setting foot in her hometown and having the audacity to date a black man. Jackson handles the race and culture issues well and shows how much of the old South still lives in contemporary America, no matter how ordinary such relationships seem in the larger culture.
The wonderful thing about this southern story is that while Jackson shows the smallness of some of Arlene's family and neighbors, she doesn't demonize them or excuse their views. Through Arlene she takes them to task without giving the novel a preachy feel or overwhelming the theme of secrets and justice at the story's core. The secrets Arlene has kept all began in high school when she took action against a bully. She prays fervently that God keep the body hidden so she can go on with her life. Ten years after leaving Alabama, it seems God has let her down and she must decide who can handle her secret and how to keep herself from being convicted of murder.
Among Jackson's shining accomplishments is the strength of her characters' voices. Arlene and her boyfriend, Burr, are well developed without the reader spending very much time in their presence. And Jackson is adept at fleshing out characters with little time in the book, like Burr's mother, and making them unforgettable.
Arlene's troubles seem to deepen as she travels South and reveals to the reader and select members of her family why she has behaved so oddly and what secrets she holds. But Jackson allows the story to unfold slowly as Arlene unravels on her desperate trip home.
Even though Arlene gives up her secret --- to the reader at least --- early in the novel, Jackson's southern tale reveals more twists right until the ending. This is a promising debut, and Jackson has the potential to become an important southern author.
Reviewed by Bernadette Adams Davis on January 22, 2011
Gods in Alabama