Kelli Jo Ford’s stunning and lovable “Crooked Hallelujah” takes place from the mid-1970s through the present day, centering on Justine, who at the beginning of the book lives with her mother, Lula, and her Granny in eastern Oklahoma. The intergenerational story is narrated by several characters — most often Granny, Lula, Justine and Justine’s daughter Reney — that integrate back stories with a chronological narrative.
The book begins in 1974. Fifteen-year-old Justine is on the cusp of great changes in her life set in motion by an event that is revealed and then detailed as the chapter progresses. Abandoned by her father eight years earlier, Justine and her mother have lived with Granny, Lula’s mother, who provides home and an anchor of Cherokee worldview and history.
Lula attends a Holiness church that dominates much of her existence; she has raised two generally obedient older girls who grew up, married and left home. Justine, however, dreams of a life that might include some worldliness outside of the confines of Holiness and poverty. One act of disobedient rebellion, however, does not lead to the throwing off of those chains at all.
This is a novel of relationships and interactions. Through the individual narratives of Justine, Lula, Granny and eventually Justine’s daughter Reney we see how they view each other — soul-crushed Lula, who stood up to the Holiness elders when Justine needed her; Justine, inexperienced and naive, supported by her mother and grandmother; Granny, the rock and foundation of tradition and survival; and Reney, who would eventually take her place to “hold down the world, in the way of Cherokee women.”
Ford has drawn characters who are earthy, honest and believable in how they resolve or reconcile to difficulties — money, jobs, relationships with men. They disagree, criticize, even fight with one another, secure in the foundation that is their female world created by Granny. They tell each other often that they are loved, but it is in their narrative thoughts that we begin to understand that as daughters they do not realize how deeply and completely they are loved by their mothers. There are so many passages in this book that are moving, these above all.
The last chapter of “Crooked Hallelujah” is apocalyptic and takes a courageous step into speculative fiction. This works very well, seamlessly really, with the foundation of the intergenerational story holding the world down, “in the way that Cherokee women do.”
Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. Her memoir “Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year” received the 2018 Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction.
By: Kelli Jo Ford.
Publisher: Grove Press, 284 pages, $26.