Southern storytelling with superpowers (Alabama, present-day): What I love most about The Almost Sisters (and there’s plenty to love) is how powerfully it shows the power of words. Prose that sweeps you along, makes you laugh a little, cry a little and touches you deeply. Feels like Joshilyn Jackson is skip, skip, skipping along confiding a tall Southern tale about characters with superpowers. Part poignant, part comical, part far-fetched, part wrongful, part downright intolerable. “Beauty and the beast all in one package.”
Don’t take my word about the author’s flowing, eclectic, colorful writing style. Take hers:
“Weirdo Fiction with a Shot of Southern Gothic Influence for Smart People Who Can Catch the Nuances but Who Like Narrative Drive, and Who Have a Sense of Humor but Who Are Willing to Go Down to Dark Places.”
Colorful is one way to think about the novel. Violet is one of the colors our narrator sees in her fantastical world of vivid colors and images. Leia Birch Briggs (38, unmarried) is a comic book artist, creator of the hugely popular Violence in Violet graphic novel. Though “nerdfame wasn’t like real famous,” she says, a nod to elevating respect for this art form.
While we might not be familiar with Leia’s pop culture lingo and urban slang straight out of the Comic Con universe, it permeates Jackson’s lyrical prose, brilliantly symbolizing our need for people with magical powers to protect the rest of us.
Leia’s Violet character was inspired by a long ago event that had the “power to crush” (she’s still coping with it), so she invented a super-girl (Violence) with superhuman powers to protect a “sweet girl” (Violet). Now she’s being asked to be super-strong to protect others, to draw upon her own super-strengths of compassion, righteousness, and a capacity to love equal to a “dozen heartbeats.”
Three intermingled family plots are tumbling at the same time, collapsing like when “you pull out the wrong piece of keepsake Jenga and topple everything down.” One is a problem of Leia’s making, one involves her super-perfect stepsister Rachel, and the other dramatically affects her beloved, “Southern Lady Genteel” yet feisty ninety-year-old grandmother, Emily Birch Briggs – Birchie.
Leia’s comic world is “chock-full of monsters and lost children, race wars, and superbeings.” As is the novel’s. Perhaps not as barefaced, but lurking. Jackson writes of the South, new and old. Birchville is a fictitious town in Alabama, but “ugly-donkey braying” voices harken painfully true. So while Leia’s memories of this rural place are “all sweet tea and decency and Jesus,” there’s also a “Second South” — “a thin, green cover over the rancid soil in our dark history.” The old Birchie brings forth idyllic times, but this new, unrecognizable one shocks history alive. Yes, racism is an all-powerful theme. In more ways than one.
The novel opens with Leia’s words: “My son, Digby.” She goes on to inform us she’s pregnant with a biracial son from a one-night stand when she was dressed as Wonder Woman (we assume, her favorite) and the father as Batman. In comic con jargon, the two were on “nerdcations,” cosplaying.
Like many references in the novel, Digby’s name is a play on words as it’s also the name of a comic book company and comic character. Leia plans to raise Digby by herself. Single motherhood, absentee fathers, another potent theme.
There’s plenty to like about Leia. Starting with her candidness, questioning her own racial attitudes, wondering if she threw away Batman’s contact info because someplace in the back of her mind she was succumbing to negative stereotypes that black men make lousy fathers. You’ll see what she’s really running away from is that “the Birch line had bad luck with fathers.”
We cheer Leia’s unorthodoxy unlike her Mom and stepdad, Keith, and “cool blonde dignity” of a stepsister Rachel. All live in Norfolk, Virginia, a place Leia suspects their neighbors might be racist – the “world was full of them” – so she better hide her surprise news from them, until she can’t. Not the only thing hidden in the novel.
The identity of Batman, even his given name, is unknown to Leia. Clever, as “origin story” is also a comic book term. “Every superbeing has one.” Seems that happens when something almighty transforms ordinary souls into superheroes (or supervillains.) The phrase has a third connotation here as another stressor plaguing Leia is she’s signed a contract with Dark Horse Comics to produce a prequel to Violence in Violet, but all she has are blank panels as to the origin of Violence’s powers. This pressure runs throughout while Leia is figuring out what, if anything, to do about Digby’s dad and the two other family plots playing out.
The one person Leia wants to open up to about Digby is Birchie, who’d unconditionally love him too. For her dearest, fiercely devoted friend is Wattie, who is black. They live together in Birchie’s legendary, homey, white Victorian. “Birchie and Wattie were a living hinge. They were the place where the South met itself.” They are so close they take turns going to each other’s church on Sundays. Church communities are a microcosm of Southern manners, customs (the annual Fish Fry!), gossip, grudges, prejudices.
Sadly, Leia can’t. In the same opening chapter we learn of Leia’s complicated pregnancy, she learns Birchie is losing her mind. Dropping everything, she races seven hundred miles to Birchville to find Birchie and Wattie have hidden her dementia – the Lewy body type. Birchie hallucinates, shouts out-of-character profanities, and reveals scandalous secrets that get her and others into big trouble. Since everyone knows everyone’s business in small towns, forbidden and dark news spread like wildfire. The literary trick is somehow the disturbing and outlandish come off a bit playfully.
As if these catastrophes aren’t enough for pregnant Leia to grapple with, before she sets out for Birchville she visits Rachel, normally oozing with “self-assured rightness,” but on this day Rachel is in the midst of a major marital meltdown. Rachel begs Leia to take her thirteen-year-old daughter Lavender (another sweet color) along to shield her from the emotional upheaval. All Leia’s life Rachel had been the savior, Leia the “underdog.” (Underdog is also the name of a comic strip). So she can’t refuse. Besides, she and her niece are fond of each other. Lav is depicted authentically in dialogue and coming-of-age behaviors, including Leia’s worries about two neighbor boys she’s befriended. All decent, well-meaning adolescents but they too reap trouble!
Nowhere on the order of a cringing scene with long-timer Martina Mack, a “vicious crone” who utters a racial slur. One vulgar word that packs so much power.
Thanks to the comic book characters, Southern folksy expressions, regional foods that are “the very taste of freedom,” and Leia’s “ballooning love,” the racial messaging is coated, making it easier to swallow.
Actually, The Almost Sisters is a joy to read. Right down to the very last sentence. The author concludes her warmhearted acknowledgements (which begin with “Dear Person-Holding-This-Book”) by thanking the First Baptist Church of Decatur (Georgia, where she lives) for:
“Trying to be a place where we broken humans of all flavors can be welcome and beloved. It’s an uphill walk, isn’t it? But damn, I love the view. Shalom, y’all.”
A super-message that colors our day brightly.