Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Joshilyn Jackson's Southern Voice: Almost Sisters

After painfully making my way through a couple of audiobooks set in the South but read by decidedly unSouthern narrators, what a breath of fresh air to listen to Joshilyn Jackson reading her own novel The Almost Sisters. I've been reading her books since Gods in Alabama, and she always weaves a great story line with quirky but believable characters.

This novel opens with Leia Birch Briggs, a comic book artist and self-proclaimed nerd, discovering that a one-night stand with a man dressed as Batman (or is it The Batman to purists?) at a comic book convention has left her pregnant with a child she decides she will raise on her own.

She delays telling her family, however, finally deciding she'll first tell her beloved grandmother Birchie, who still lives in the small Southern town of her family origin. She gets the news that her grandmother has been keeping a secret, with the help of her best friend Wattie, the daughter of the family's former black maid: she has a form of dementia known as Lewy bodies. (Yes, it's a real illness.) The dementia revealed itself at a church social when Wattie wasn't able to keep Birchie from spilling town secrets, particularly the extramarital shenanigans going on in the choir room.

Meanwhile, Leia learns that her half-sister--always the perfect one--is in the middle of a marital crisis, and Rachel's young teenage daughter witnessed the blow-up. To get her out of the middle of the crisis, Leia takes her along to Birchville.

As she tries to make the hard decisions about moving her grandmother to a safer place, Leia discovers that the secrets Birchie let fly at the Baptist Church were nothing compared to her own secrets she's been keeping--or hiding--in the family home.

Jackson uses the experiences of many of the characters to explore the impact of a father's absence--either by choice, loss, or pure ignorance. Leia's father died when she was too young to remember him; her stepfather was a loving parent, but early on, Rachel prevented Leia from calling him Dad. Rachel's teen daughter connects with two local teen boys whose mother's infidelity was exposed, and Birchie's father issues emerge through the course of the story, as Leia has to make decisions about how much--or if--to tell Batman she is carrying his baby.

Jackson builds a story that is at once a romance, a coming-of-age story, a family saga, and a comedy. No, she doesn't relegate Batman to his early cameo appearance as the story opens--and he is anything but the stereotype readers might expect--unless they know Joshilyn Jackson's fiction, that is. While I know the story would read just as authentically Southern off the pages of the book, hearing it narrated by the author is an audio treat.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I've taken awhile to write a review of this novel, hoping the hubbub would die down and people would read it first without being influenced by the controversy surrounding the book. Everyone who had read the advanced copies of the novel commented on how powerful yet painful the book is, so I was eager to hear Cummings read at Parnassus Books the week the book was launched, and I was just as eager to read her novel.

Jeanine Cummins pulls in readers from the opening pages, when her two main characters, a young boy Luca and his mother Lydia in Acapulco are able to hide and survive a mass killing of 16 members of their family at a birthday cookout, obviously the work of members of a notorious drug cartel. The hit is undoubtedly a response to an expose of the particular cartel, Los Jardinieres, written by Lydia's journalist husband Sebastian.

Immediately after their escape, aware that many of the local law enforcement officers are in the pocket of the cartel, Lydia takes Luca and flees toward the U. S. border. What follows is a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, bone-weary journey, as Lydia and Luca join others making that same route. Along the way, they are shadowed by a young man bearing a tattoo marking him as a member of the Los Jardinieres who has killed. While he tells her he is leaving to escape that life, his tendency to keep appearing leaves her more than wary.

Two of the most sympathetic characters they encounter are young sisters, one of them strikingly beautiful, who have fled to escape a controlling relationship in which the elder sister became entangled that now threatens to control the younger sister too. They are able to show the mother and son the ropes as they slip onto trains bound north, and they become more like family to Luca and Lydia.

Ignoring the inflammatory buzz about the book, I will say that American Dirt has the power to engage readers with neutral or negative attitudes about immigrants heading to the border. Certainly she shows the characters they encounter as individuals as varied as any one would expect to meet under such circumstances. In some towns, they find themselves fed and cared for, and in others, they have to lie low, avoiding any attention that might connect them to Javier, the cartel leader.

I'm wondering if Atticus Finch would fault Cummins with attempting, after much research, to portray as human beings characters that are often wrongly stereotyped.