By Kelli Jo Ford
There’s a scene in Kelli Jo Ford’s first novel that tugged at me long after I finished her book.
In it, a depressed, defeated man stands in a North Texas pasture watching his horses nibble at a round bale of hay. As his wife watches from their trailer home, a gust of wind kicks up, obscuring him in a thick cloud of dust, hay and grasshoppers. When it settles, the frantic horses are racing along the fence line, but her husband just stands there “with his arms out, like he was waiting to be carried away.”
I also yearned to be carried away, to be lifted out of the daily grind, as I read “Crooked Hallelujah” — not just because of the anxious moments our country is living through but because that’s what good fiction does: It transports us. Ford’s novel, however, rolls about like a tumbleweed buffeted by desert breezes, meandering aimlessly around thorny issues of intergenerational poverty and female despair but never quite launching into a satisfying story or even providing a convincing case for mediocrity.
“Crooked Hallelujah” is about three generations of Oklahoma women with Cherokee blood in their veins and a penchant for no-good men — adulterers, slackers, violent and self-absorbed cads who abandon wives and children at will.
The book opens in 1974 with 15-year-old Justine and her mom, Lula, living with Lula’s mother in Oklahoma. Seven years earlier, Justine’s dad dropped Lula and his three daughters off at church, drained their bank account and drove out of their lives forever. As a result, Lula is forced to drop out of college and give up her dreams of becoming an artist to work as a secretary. The family scrapes by on powdered commodity eggs, while Lula doubles down on the stifling dogma of her Holiness church, which keeps women in ankle-length skirts and out of leadership roles and condemns teenagers for attending rock concerts or, God forbid, going on a trip to Six Flags.
But teens do what teens are wont to do: They find ways to sample forbidden secularities anyway, and their unfamiliarity with concepts such as designated drivers or birth control often brings tragic results. Unsurprisingly, Justine, eager to liberate herself from this religious straitjacket, sneaks out of her bedroom window and into the pickup truck of a 20-something man she has only recently met. She imagines them going to a drive-in movie, and by the time she notices a blanket folded in his back seat, she has started down a path toward teenage motherhood and a series of bad choices that will consign her to the same hardscrabble life as her mother.
“Don’t ever be like me,” she’ll later tell Reney, the child she conceived that night. Therein lies the main tension of the book: whether Reney will break the hereditary curse of general wretchedness.
The chapters shift between the experiences of Lulu, Justine, Reney and a few peripheral characters. These secondary characters outshine the three women because they are more complex and surprising. In a long section dropped into the middle of the book, for example, Ford introduces a lesbian couple and their mentally disabled 26-year-old neighbor, Mose, who’s left to fend for himself after his mother dies. After the women are savagely attacked by “meth heads” in a home-invasion hate crime, the section ends abruptly with Mose running toward the home of that “sailor-mouthed Indian lady” (Justine) for help. Aside from a passing reference some 50 pages later, we learn no more about this dynamic, tender trio — or why they are in the book at all.
In another gripping interlude, an aging cowboy brings home a woman he picked up at a rodeo to meet his bedridden wife. He draws the woman from the rodeo a bath and helps her undress, but, after hearing his wife cough in the next room, is unable to bed her. “I don’t tell the tale to rectify the situation or to say I’m sorry, I done wrong,” he mournfully reflects. “I tell it to say that sometimes all the years and tears don’t amount to nothing but a slow death upon you.”
The slow death of this novel can be traced to one fatal flaw: Its main characters are boring. They cling to soul-shredding creeds and rancid men and exhibit an infuriating lack of agency. Instead of evolving in dramatic or profound ways, they remain passive and long-suffering. As a consequence, the story fails to move the reader.
Toward the end of “Crooked Hallelujah,” Ford implies that education and reason is the antidote to these thwarted female lives. After a brief marriage to a violent man, Reney seems poised to change her fate when she moves to Portland to study literature and falls in love with “a nice man with soft hands and letters after his name.”
The novel concludes with a disjointed 30-page section on apocalyptic forces of nature scouring Texas, but I’d rather end on this focused and hopeful note. Perhaps a brighter future awaits for at least one of these pitiful women.