Saturday, December 22, 2007

BACK ROADS

Back Roads, Tawni O'Dell, Viking Press, 2000, 338 pp


After reading Sister Mine earlier this year, I decided to go back to Tawni O'Dell's earlier novels. This one was an Oprah pick and why is it that Oprah's books are so often about wholly dysfunctional people? Still this book is equally as good as Sister Mine, though considerably darker.

Harley Altmeyer is 18 and as the oldest sibling with three younger sisters, he is trying to support and raise those girls without parents. Their mother is in jail for the murder of their abusive father. Due to the abuse, all five living members of the family are majorly screwed up. As the story progresses, Harley and the oldest sister learn what was really going on in their family.

Meanwhile, Harley begins having sex with the mother of his youngest sister's friend and it all ends up with Harley in jail for the murder of this woman, which isn't what really happened either. O'Dell is a master of highly skilled plotting and realistic characters and dialogue. (I don't think she attended any MFA writing programs.) I loved the spot-on encounters between Harley and his State appointed shrink. When Harley thinks about stuff, O'Dell includes certain words in capital letters, just like J D Salinger did for Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

Quite a book. I learned much about the insidious effects of abuse on children; effects that stay with them as they grow up and lead to all manner of social ills. I realized that most of the students I taught at a school for kids who had fallen behind were victims of either abuse or abandonment, which is what made them so hard to help.

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