Alabama Rain has two great distinctions: it is the first Southern Gothic book I’ve ever read, and it is the first ARC I’ve had the privilege of reviewing. So I’ll extend an extra big thank-you to Aila Stephens for this opportunity. She has worked very hard to get this book where it is, and I cannot believe this book is only two years in the making. TWO! I’ve worked on books for FIVE years without getting the kind of character development and plot speed as this one, but Stephens’ ability to turn out a book in that time isn’t my only reason to be proud of this book.
The book crosses two generations’ stories: that of feisty, hardened Corrie Bryant in the 1930’s, and her lawyer daughter, Sarah, in 1994. Sarah has returned to her childhood home of Dry Creek, Alabama because Corrie has been accused of murdering Sarah’s father, Jedidiah. With Corrie in jail, it’s time to tell her life story to her estranged daughter—how she traveled, lost, hurt, and loved during the Great Depression. But Corrie isn’t the only one in Dry Creek with secrets, and, with the help of some unlikely friends, Sarah is about to learn the ugliest truth of this small Southern community.
Balancing two narratives is not an easy feat, but Stephens does it relatively well. I did find one more compelling than the other, though. For me, what links these two stories is not the cast of characters, but the contrast in Corrie’s personality: in 1994, she is grouchy, hard-hearted, and untouchable, but in the Depression, she is optimistic and lively—a contrast that, at times, is so great, the two outlooks almost don’t belong to the same person. That said, I looked forward to the Depression narrative because it has the liveliest characters, the most heart-wrenching drama, and I love watching a band of characters trudge from one hardship to the next. The 1994 narrative has its moments, but it never quite reaches the level of gut-punching humanity as the Depression.
At times, things move a little too quickly. One of the cornerstones of the Depression narrative is Corrie’s romance with a black farmhand named Clarence. I would have liked to see a little more time devoted to their secret courtship, plus, I couldn’t quite identify what else drew them together besides Corrie teaching Clarence how to read. In the end, I did believe in their relationship and it was definitely sad watching bad things happen to them, but it needed a tad more initial development.
The climax also suffers from this problem. The action is overseen by a bad thunderstorm, which I think could have used a little more buildup—the characters could consider what damage this storm could do, and how they prepare for it, amid the drama with Corrie. What revelations are made during this storm are wrapped up pretty quickly too. I’m not saying Stephens should have extended the confrontation for five chapters, but I didn’t feel the tension as much as I wanted to. That lack of tension can probably be attributed to the revelation of Jedidiah’s killer. You think it’ll go in one sensible direction you wouldn’t have considered till now, but it goes with something more obvious and easy.
Some things move quickly, but others are unclear or confusing. There is a character named O’Dell, who, like Corrie, has a role in both the Depression and 1994 narrative. In 1994, he would be an old man, but he has mannerisms much like a young child, such as nuzzling his face into his brother’s knees or refusing to kill an insect. I would have liked an explanation for why he behaves the way he does, especially since, at first, it’s not made clear that he is an old man—I believed he was a child. It also wasn’t made very explicit that Clarence was a black farmhand. Because there was so little description of him, until the Klan came into the picture, I imagined him as a young white man. In a book this long, with this many characters, it never hurts to have a few more character description here and there.
These things by no means—no means at all—make this book bad. Like I said, the narrative is compelling, and it never moves slowly. When bad things happened to Corrie and her black farmhand friends, I was genuinely angry or sad. The narratives move between each other so deftly that you forget to not feel for these characters. You come to like Corrie and Clarence enough that, as you read about the Depressions’ effects on them, you aren’t conscious of whether Clarence might be gone in 1994—you get pulled into their journey, as well as that of all they meet in the process, and it just can’t be helped.
Be forewarned: this is an emotional journey, especially in the Depression narrative. Corrie and her friends encounter rape, bigotry, and death, but it doesn’t stop with Sarah and her friends in 1994. There are moments of genuine horror that leave you aghast at the audacity we have as humans. If I were to talk about all the characters in this book, like Mabel, Nelly, Grundy, Tinky, Richard, Sam, and so on, we’d be here a long, long time. Just take my word that, for the most part, they’re all written competently; you’ll have your favorites, and the ones whose faces you’ll want to drag through a pigsty.
While flawed, Alabama Rain is still a journey worth taking, back into a time that holds more relevance than we might think, with characters you’ll love and hate. It’s a long book that crosses generations, filled with loss and heartbreak and love, but it’ll be over before you can blink—kind of like life itself.
Alabama Rain will be available on August 14th for Kindle and Nook!