‘One hell of a testimony’ about mothers and daughters

Debut novelist Kelli Jo Ford writes a lyrical tale of faith and family.


In lieu of a traditional author portrait, the “about” page of Cherokee writer Kelli Jo Ford’s website features a curious snapshot of a highway winding through a red-rock canyon. On the left side of the road, a brown highway sign reads “INDIAN WRITING,” with an arrow pointing right, presumably toward  petroglyphs carved in the nearby towering sandstone cliffs. Between the arrow and the ancient rock carvings, however, stands Ford herself, scribbling away in a notebook. The caption reads: “How. Did. They. Know.”

Ford is poking fun at the idea that Indigenous writing is an artifact of the past tethered to a romanticized Western landscape. She transforms “writing” from a static noun into an active verb, happening now, sustained by Indigenous writers all over the continent, including, with this debut novel, Ford herself.

In her “novel in stories” entitled Crooked Hallelujah, Ford refuses to reduce her work to an exposition of Cherokee identity for non-Indigenous audiences. Instead, in a voice at once critical and empathetic, Ford paints strikingly candid portraits of four generations of Cherokee women in all their human complexity, rather than reducing them to figures in a political allegory. The result is a book that is — to borrow Ford’s own deceptively poetic turn of phrase — “One hell of a testimony.”

Ford’s tale of female kinship resonates with Cherokee society’s traditional matrilineal structure. But as Ford explains in an interview with The Missouri Review, while her main characters are Cherokee, the story isn’t “about them being Cherokee.” Instead, Ford says, “at its heart, Crooked Hallelujah is about the relationships between mothers and daughters.”

This family saga opens on the teenaged Justine living with her mother, Lula, and unnamed grandmother in a fictional town in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. Justine is raped on an illicit date with a man she met on a school trip. She subsequently gives birth to a daughter, Reney, but her shame and fear prevent her from confiding in her mother about how she became pregnant. Lula and the family’s church congregation blame Justine for the sin of having premarital sex. The scandal that follows threatens to alienate Justine from her mother and the entire family from the church that ties them to their community.

As its title suggests, Crooked Hallelujah centers on its characters’ complicated relationship to Christianity. Like Ford herself, Justine, Lula and Lula’s mother grew up in The Holiness Church, a charismatic Protestant denomination with a puritanical approach to earthly pleasures and to Indigenous traditions. “They believed Stomp Dances were of the devil, that God healed what was meant to be healed, and children obeyed,” Justine says. Ford, however, does not linger on the fact that the church is a colonial imposition. Instead, she reveals her protagonists’ demanding faith to be both a poison and a cure in their relationships with each other.

“But without the things that make us who we are, we’re nothing, I reckon.”

Reflecting on the impacts of her mother’s fervent religiosity on her childhood, which included rules such as wearing ankle-length skirts, avoiding amusement parks and not associating with boys, Justine mourns for “the little girl I was and wonder who she could have been without the Bible, without sickness, without so much by-God loss. But without the things that make us who we are, we’re nothing, I reckon.”

For Ford, fundamentalist Christianity, with its vacillation between teachings of extreme renunciation and boundless love, is a bond between these mothers and daughters that cannot easily be disavowed.

Throughout the novel, Ford’s characters find subtle ways to assert themselves as contemporary Native women. In considering her mother’s amateur paintings, Justine notes that “All Mama ever painted was teepees or landscapes of Sequoyah County, the scrubby patch of hills she saw nothing but beauty in.” Though often invoked by white Americans as an anachronistic and inaccurate metonymy for all Indigenous experiences, teepees were not historically used by Cherokees. In Lula’s hands, however, their image becomes an assertion of Indigenous identity by a woman who has been all but severed from her own tribal traditions. Likewise, in her romantic depictions of the underappreciated landscapes of eastern Oklahoma, Lula finds beauty in the land that the U.S. government originally allocated for the Cherokee Nation’s presumed decline.

Walking the line between novel and short story collection produces some choppy transitions in Crooked Hallelujah, especially when the narrative takes an abrupt and cryptic turn toward the apocalyptic in its concluding story. But perhaps Ford is not after a neatly finished tale. Her commitment to telling stories that are hard to tell, in all their pain and complexity, makes for a lyrical account of life. Towards the end of the novel, Justine is surprised when Reney, having moved to Oregon for college, starts “asking questions about ‘her Cherokee heritage’ when she called home, wanting to hear old stories. Justine had stories aplenty; few that she cared to tell. Nonetheless, she found herself telling them all.” 

Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of U.S. culture and transnational settler colonialism. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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