Tawni O'Dell's heartbreaking and at times humorous portrayal of the Altmyers, and her dead-on description of rural Pennsylvania is sure to mesmerize readers.
Nineteen-year-old Harley Altmyer is trapped. Father dead, mother in jail for murder, three sisters to care for, and a firery aggressive libido that rages against his will - Harley's world is full of hormonal traps and emotional landmines. He is an honest and sensitive lost soul trying to take on the responsibilities of adulthood without really understanding what those responsibilities are. A glimmer of hope appears from his relationship with a lonely mother of two who lives down the road. But Harley's delicate balancing act of keeping his family together , pursuing his affair with a married woman, and keeping his own head above water, all comes tumbling down as family secrets rise to the surface and burst through.
I was born and raised in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania, a beautiful ruined place where the rolling hills are pitted with dead gray mining towns like cigarette burns on a green carpet. My hometown is Indiana, PA, which was also Jimmy Stewart's hometown. Half the streets are named after him and we have a bronze statue of him in front of the courthouse that looks suspiciously like Henry Fonda. My roots: I'm half Pennsylvania redneck and half southern white trash. Growing up, I never really fit in, I always thought I was a freak because I liked books and living animals. All my childhood girlfriends wanted to be Farrah Fawcett or Christie Brinkley. I wanted to be Roald Dahl. This greatly concerned my family. Especially after I explained to them who he was. I'm the only member of my family to go to college. I have a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. My high school guidance counselor advised me against going there because they had a bad football team. Even after I explained to him that I wanted to be a journalist and NU had one of the best journalism schools in the country, he said, "Well, sure, but you'll still want to go to the football games." I went anyway and graduated with honors. All my life I have struggled with this particular identity crisis: being an educated woman saddled with a biker chick's name. A theme that often appears in my work is one of characters' struggling to define themselves among people who already defined them wrongly because of a stereotype, or their own inability to look past a person's surface and see inside them. I've frequently had to deal with the danger of being mislabeled.
Long before I ever heard of such literary giants as Faulkner and Joyce who would someday influence my writing as an adult, I encountered a book called, Go, Dog. Go!, by P.D. Eastman. The bold imagery of, "Green dog on a yellow tree," the poetic resonance of, "Now it is night. Night is not a time for play," and the pulse-pounding climax of, "A dog party! A big dog party!" hooked me for life. It was the first book I read all by myself. I was four years old, and it cemented my love of reading.
When I was six years old I read my first Roald Dahl book, James and the Giant Peach, during summer vacation while sitting in a swing in my Great Aunt Zo's back yard. I felt I had found a kindred spirit: someone who saw the world as an absurd, often cruel, but somehow sweetly hopeful place. I read all of his books and felt inspired to write. By the time I was eight I'd written a stack of my own short stories.
When I was ten, To Kill a Mockingbird changed me forever. I read it four times in a row, unwilling and unable to leave the characters and that place. Harper Lee started a lifelong love of southern writers for me: Truman Capote, William Styron, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and probably the author I admire most, Flannery O'Connor.
The southern writer's strong love of place and language and legacy is something I share.
In high school and college I discovered J.D. Salinger, Nathaniel West, and James Joyce who, along with Flannery O'Connor, are the authors who have had the most impact on what I try to bring to my own writing.
The Catcher in the Rye, The Day of the Locust, The Dubliners, and A Good Man is Hard to Find are novels and short story collections I reread almost every year.
What all four of these authors do brilliantly is bring significance to the insignificant. They take misfits and regular folk and make them intriguing. They take trivial, everyday actions and make them important. They take the most unpleasant character and make him someone a reader can understand even if the reader can never excuse him.
Their ability to condemn while showing compassion, to admire characters they pity, to blend hilarity and suffering are the guideposts for my own writing.
A few other authors whose novels have made great impressions on me are Robert Penn Warren and the lyricism of All the King's Men; Kazuo Ishiguro and the restrained perfection of The Remains of the Day; Emily Bronte and the tortured psyches bound to a tortured place in Wuthering Heights; Patrick McCabe and the likable horror of The Butcher Boy.
I also believe, though, that a writer is influenced by more than just other writers.
Every writer has a world they portray best but before they can begin to write about it they have to feel for it. They have to possess the passion and empathy to capture a place, a culture, a people with an honest completeness. A writer needs to have not only an understanding of the world she writes about but a very real place within it.
Keeping that in mind, I have to add my late grandfather, H.E. Burkett, to the list of people who have influenced my writing. My grandfather was a country banker in western Pennsylvania who filled me with stories of people in the region and the troubles they faced when the coal and steel industries pulled out. He showed me how hardship can make character, or break it. He helped me understand how good men could be driven to do bad things by the simple relentlessness of responsibility and arrested pride. He taught me to evaluate a person not only by his words and actions but by his history and his circumstance.
During his lifetime my grandfather never felt a need to venture outside his valley and during fifty-five years of marriage, he never felt a desire to be away from my grandmother for more than a workday. His love for her and his patch of Pennsylvania has inspired and sustained me always.
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- Harley Altmyer is a complicated figure. He is part saint, part sinner; part child, part man. Discuss these contradictions. Which parts of him do you like? Which do you dislike?
- The author, Tawni O'Dell, a thirty-six year old woman has chosen Harley, a 19-year old boy as the narrator and protagonist for Back Roads. What makes Harley so convincing to the reader? How might the emotional and psychological preoccupations of the novel have changed if Amber had told the story? Or Callie?
- Early on Harley explains how his life is "lousy with women. All ages, shapes, sizes, and levels of purity." Despite his frustration and confusion, in what ways does Harley seem to understand and empathize with the women in his life? And in what ways does he fail to see what they want or need? What does it mean for him that he has no male role model?
- Back Roads is very much a book about the emotional legacies passed from one generation of a family to the next. In what ways do Amber and Harley mimic the behavior of their mother and father? And, in the end, do you feel that they will be able to break free of that dubious legacy?
- Harley's father is as complicated a figure as Harley. In many ways, he is painted as a decent, hardworking, loving man. Does his violence negate all that? And how culpable is Harley's mother for overlooking the beatings?
- Early in the novel, Harley notes that "...the difference between Dad and me was he always went ahead and hit one of us; and he was a much happier person." Harley can barely contain his own violent impulses. What do his violent fantasies imply about him as a young man, as an abused child, as a brother?
- Even though Harley's predicament could not be worse, he often manages to make you laugh. How does humor work in Back Roads?
- Discuss the theme of character as it applies to Misty. Do you think she is beyond redemption? Should Harley's mother have assumed her new role as head of the family and sought help for Misty?
- In what ways does six-year old Jody learn to adapt and cope without parents? What do you imagine her future holds once her brother and sisters are gone? Will it be better or worse without them?
- As confused and hurting teenagers-Harley, a young man at his sexual peek, and Amber a lost, deeply troubled and promiscuous girl-sex plays a significant and complicated role in their relationship. What voids does the physical act of sex fill for each of them?
- What does Callie's willingness to become sexually involved with Harley say about her as a person? As a mother? What does the relationship reveal about where she is in her own life?
- The relationship between Amber and Harley is at the heart of the complete breakdown of the family, and results in Callie's death. Yet, as Betty explains to Harley, what happens between them is neither his fault nor hers. Do you agree with Betty? Why or why not? Who, if anyone, is responsible for these tragedies?