When Arlene Fleet fled small-town Possett, Alabama, she made a pact with God: in exchange for his help in keeping a murder quiet, she would stop sleeping around and telling lies — and flee, never returning to Possett again. Rebuilding a life in Chicago built around academia, Lena convinces herself that her torrid, unpleasant past is nothing but a memory. Life in Chicago is good. Life in Chicago is calm and quiet, void of the chaos that swept through her formative years.
But everything changes when high school classmate Rose Mae Lolley darkens her doorstep, asking too many questions Lena doesn’t want to answer. Her presence disrupts the carefully-created facade Lena has cultivated in Illinois and manages to throw her lawyer boyfriend on red alert, too. Burr is successful, handsome, supportive — and black. Deeply in love with her but frustrated by their stagnant relationship, Burr keeps asking to be introduced to her family. Lena can’t fathom bringing an African-American man to meet her conservative, religious Southern brethren, but forces conspire to draw her back to Possett for the first time in more than a decade. And it doesn’t seem like some remains can stay buried forever.
Joshilyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama is a sweeping, emotional and evocative story of love, redemption and family. If I was utterly absorbed in Rose Mae’s saga in Backseat Saints, a parallel piece to this one, then gods in Alabama totally blew me away.
What impresses me most about Jackson’s characters is their immediate way of burrowing into my heart. While I didn’t feel as though I knew Lena well in Backseat Saints, I knew enough of her past to feel somewhat wary of her at the start of this narrative. But her unique voice and humor definitely won out; like Rose Mae, I really felt for her. Wanting to protect and support Lena was effortless.
Being so swept up in Lena’s history with Jim Beverly, Rose’s high school love and star quarterback, I almost forgot to follow up on what was happening in the here and now. Burr was impossible not to love, being so patient and kind. You’d be hard-pressed to find a man willing to date such a damaged, skittish woman for years at a time . . . especially when their relationship could never progress beyond the passionate-kissing stage. When Lena promised God to stop sinning and “fornicating” with boys, she meant it. And after 10 years, she still means it . . . meaning Burr, already a sweetheart of a guy, had to have the patience of a saint.
As Lena makes her sojourn back to Alabama, I was on the defensive; Lena was fragile, I knew, and I didn’t want anyone criticizing her relationship with Burr. Furthermore, I was terrified of what her return to Possett would mean for the murder mystery that surrounded the story. But Lena’s obvious tie to Clarice, her cousin, was heartwarming; I loved how, despite many years and great distance between them, Lena was still so protective of Clarice. Their family history was heartbreaking and very telling of her Aunt Florence’s future actions. But despite her erratic and judgmental behavior, I couldn’t fault Aunt Flo for the things she did and didn’t do.
Having read Backseat Saints before gods in Alabama, I didn’t know what had become of Jim Beverly. When Rose leaves her abusive husband and goes on a search to uncover what happened with her first love, a man she once trusted more than anyone, I had no idea what had actually happened to him. The unraveling of Jim’s fate was riveting. Like its sequel, I listened to this one on audio — and more than once I found myself sitting in the work parking lot just to listen to a bit more before ending my lunch break. Errands became a welcome chance to reunite with Lena, Burr, Clarice and the family. And the story was anything but predictable.
If you’ve never read Jackson and love Southern fiction, especially when combined with mystery and family dynamics, I highly recommend both gods in Alabama and Backseat Saints. An infectious blend of love, intrigue, humor and tenderness, both novels bowled me over. They’re everything I love in storytelling: novels that make me chuckle, tear up, squirm, cringe, shift to the edge of my seat and back again. Don’t miss out.
4.5 out of 5!