No, the title isn’t fooling you. Jolene is indeed – at least in part – a fantasy retelling of Dolly Parton’s seminal country tale about a woman begging a mysterious, gorgeous woman not to take her man – though the tale also takes inspiration from the Russian folk tale Queen of the Copper Mountain. In Lackey’s able hands, it soars, only stylistic choices disrupting its flow, because as engrossing as Jolene is, it’s important for readers to know that every character’s dialogue is written-out in an approximation of a heavy redneck-cum-deep-southern accent. Some readers will find this to be a severe impediment to their enjoyment of the book, but I didn’t find it too hard to follow.
Our heroine lives in the coal mining town of Soddy, Tennessee. Anna May Jones’ parents are poor, in debt to the company store, and Pa has a coal cough from the mines – and worse, they have little love and low regard for Anna, who’s just a part and parcel of their general misery. When her father dies of black lung, Anna and her mother are turned out of their home due to said debt to the company store. Anna May’s mother writes to her sister Jinny in desperation – and to her relief, she agrees to house Anna in Lonesome Holler, within the Ducktown Basin.
Circumstances in Lonesome Holler seem much nicer, but Anna learns the truth soon enough – that the people see Aunt Jinny as a witch because she practices herbal medicine. But Jinny isn’t a witch, she’s a Root Woman, a form of an Elemental Master – making medicinal tinctures that improve if one follows the proper recipe given in an ancient tome and with the focus of her own powers. She works with the elements of the Earth to form those powerful herbal medicines, calling it The Glory. Naturally it’s taken for witchcraft.
It seems that Jinny wants Anna to be her apprentice, and she soon falls under Jinny’s tutelage, showing magical abilities of her own. Jinny becomes the first real parental figure that Anna’s ever had, and Anna begins to flourish in Lonesome Holler, making new friends and experiencing new things – and learning how to make her own potions. Just the clean air, hearty food and good water are better than anything she knew before. But Jinny’s ways – avoiding church as she does – and the inexplicable feeling that she’s being watched begin to haunt Anna, leaving her balanced between the magical world and the realistic, Appalachian world of her parents.
Then Anna meets Joshua, a stonecutter whose gorgeous work draws him a hefty clientele, all of whom want him to carve their headstones and other such statuary. But Joshua remains dissatisfied with his own work – he craves a realism he cannot create with his own chisel.
Along the way, Anna meets Jolene, a gorgeous, elegant woman who practices a form of The Glory that is highly advanced. Jolene seems to have an intense interest in Joshua, and he – oblivious, single-mindedly perusing his betterment – is drawn to her for reasons beyond her incomparable beauty. When he disappears into those fearsome woods one day, Anna goes in pursuit of him. But Anna herself is being pursued by a powerful man named Billie who would do anything to possess her – and her magic. What will Anna do – and who is the mysterious Jolene, really?
Jolene is a good blend of fairytale, fantasy and Appalachian atmosphere. There are a couple of points that might turn readers off, but overall the tale is enchanting.
Anna May is your classic protagonist who turns from innocence to resourcefulness, though this may take far too long for the reader’s enjoyment. I liked Jinny much better, a woman who has loved and lost and become tough, but is vulnerable when it comes to the last kin she’s got left.
Joshua (and yes, I caught that reference to another Parton song, author!) is a classic absent-minded artist, who learns eventually that the price of perfecting his art is not worth the human toll of life around him.
Jolene is wonderfully enigmatic in of herself – human and very much not, kind and not. Complex in a way that the other characters are not.
I enjoyed the way Lackey plays with the setting and makes reference to the Reconstruction-era racial tensions that plagued the nation in a way that avoids triteness. The only big problem the novel has is that Lackey has chosen to written the dialogue in a manner that may be hard to parse for some – a thick hillbilly inflection with lots of abbreviations.
Overall, Jolene is a cracking good tale that works from start to finish as properly delightful, if one can surmount the phonetic accent in which the author has chosen to write it.
Note: Lackey gives her own content warning about the period-typical attitudes and racial sentiments used by her characters at the start of the novel. Those sensitive to such subjects should heed her call.
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