Kelli Jo Ford’s first book, composed of interlocking stories set in Oklahoma and North Texas, is like a wildfire that slowly approaches a home and then whips through an entire region. Crooked Hallelujah opens in 1974 and introduces four generations of Cherokee women: Granny, Lula, Justine and Reney. The women are as intertwined as they are distinct, adhering to their own codes and overshadowing the men in their lives.
Granny, the matriarch of the clan, shares a bedroom with her daughter, Lula, a devoted follower of a Holy Roller-like church. Lula’s rebellious 15-year-old daughter, Justine, resists her mother’s religious affiliation. After Justine is raped, she gives birth to blue-eyed Reney. Gradually, Granny cedes center stage to Lula and Justine, who try to make a life amid the poverty of their town.
Several powerful pieces stand out in this novel-in-stories. In one, grown-up Reney, now married, works at a Dairy Queen while trying to attend school. She also manages the small cattle ranch on which she and her husband live. One day, Reney’s beloved mule goes missing, and her search leads to a devastating act of violence. In another chaotic piece, Justine is packing up to leave Texas and return to Oklahoma, but a wildfire lights the horizon, forcing a change in her plans. In a stirring, believable hospital scene, in which Lula has suffered a massive stroke, relatives sing their church songs while Justine tries to comfort and come to terms with her mother.
Crooked Hallelujah is an imperfect work. Some tales, such as that of a lesbian couple menaced in their trailer home, seem out of place, and readers may find the timeline difficult to follow. But Ford’s voice rises above the tumult, sharing the stories of women whose lives have been injured and upended but who will never be silent.