In ‘Crooked Hallelujah,’ Kelli Jo Ford Explores How Pain is Passed Down Through Families

Ford’s debut follows the lives of a mother and daughter who move from Oklahoma to North Texas.

Crooked Hallelujah. By Kelli Jo Ford, Grove Atlantic. $26.00, 304 pages.
Crooked Hallelujah. By Kelli Jo Ford, Grove Atlantic. $26.00, 304 pages.

Ford’s debut follows the lives of a mother and daughter who move from Oklahoma to North Texas.

Crooked Hallelujah. By Kelli Jo Ford, Grove Atlantic. $26.00, 304 pages.
Crooked Hallelujah. By Kelli Jo Ford, Grove Atlantic. $26.00, 304 pages.

What makes a place home? For the women in Kelli Jo Ford’s debut novel, Crooked Hallelujah, home is a complex, contentious thing. Their homes are comforting or harmful, safe or destructive, beloved or hated; sometimes, they are all these things at once.

In the book’s opening pages, Lula, a Cherokee woman and a devout member of the Beulah Springs Holiness Church, arrives home from her long day at work as a secretary and sits beside her 15-year-old daughter, Justine, on the porch of their small house. “Evenings like this make me wonder how a body would want to set their bones anywhere other than these hills,” Lula says, gazing out at the rolling landscape. Justine sees the same hills as “folds in a crumpled blanket,” and is very much able to imagine why someone would want to leave Sequoyah County in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Lula’s devoutness stifles Justine, who rebels against the Holiness Church’s rigid restrictions—modest clothing, a divestment from worldly things like the Rolling Stone magazines hidden in her closet, and a rejection of traditional medicine (“God healed what was meant to be healed”). Justine yearns to see something of the world, even if that something is only a trip to Six Flags with her estranged father, whose abandonment of the family seems to have pushed Lula toward strict religion in the first place.

Such cause-and-effect cycles are never spelled out too neatly by Ford, but doled out sporadically over the course of the book’s 13 chapters. For the most part, the book moves chronologically forward from its opening in the 1970s but focuses on different characters by switching between first- and third-person points-of-view. This makes the book feel expansive, peopled beyond the bounds of the women threading the main narrative together. Ford’s characters are independent and self-aware throughout, even as their actions illustrate how trauma and pain can be passed down through families.

In the book’s first chapter, Justine learns that she’s pregnant. About a decade later, she and her daughter Reney leave Oklahoma for North Texas, where they settle in Bonita, a small town increasingly beset by natural—or perhaps not-so-natural—disasters.

Justine finds her way to Bonita by marrying Pitch, a horse jockey who loves her and Reney but who, like many of the men she’s tried to date, makes promises bigger than he can keep. Later, a teenaged Reney replicates this pattern when she gets involved with an older man named Wes. She plans to leave him and Bonita behind to attend college at the University of Texas at Austin, but when her Pell Grant falls through, she finds herself stuck in a job at the local Dairy Queen, supporting Wes while he waits for opportunities to show up at his doorstep. Much like Justine wanted to flee her home in Sequoyah County, Bonita becomes a kind of trap for Reney.

Hard as it is to leave, it’s also difficult to come back. When Justine gets into a bad fight with Pitch, which happens regularly, she packs up her and Reney’s things and drives them back to Lula’s house, only to feel out of place and leave again. Later, she returns north to care for her mother after Lula begins experiencing frequent seizures—for which she refuses any medical treatment—or when some other tragedy calls her home. But when Lula has a stroke that leaves her barely able to move and mostly monosyllabic, Justine thinks that it’s “probably going to end these trips.” She continues: “When it does, I’ll be left with no place to aim these stories, and I reckon they’ll go wherever all the hurt with no home goes. And what will be left then?” Home, Justine seems to be telling us, can be a person as much as it is a place.

Reney’s voice makes its own return in the novel’s strange and wonderful final chapter, which takes place in the near future when a seemingly self-contained apocalypse strikes Bonita. It’s a literal one, Reney tells us: “I’m not speaking in metaphor when I tell you the end of the world began on my second wedding day, more than a year ago.” But maybe these plagues of grasshoppers, the terrible heat, the unpredictable storms are also a manifestation of where all that hurt with no home goes: into landscapes we keep destroying, into cycles of trauma reinforced by colonization, systemic injustice, and patriarchal structures.

While Crooked Hallelujah can feel scattered at first due to its shifting narrators and the occasional seemingly disconnected chapter, this might be by design: The book’s themes center on the shifting nature of home and how trauma is both part of life and a disruption of it. But the more I sank into the pages and characters, the more I came to accept and then relish Ford’s confidence in her storytelling methods and trust in her readers. By the novel’s end, it felt, if not perfect, then precisely and wonderfully whole.

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Ilana Masad is a queer books and culture critic, the founder and host of The Other Stories podcast, and author of All My Mother's Lovers.


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