How I Left the Great State of Tennessee and Went on to Better Things: A Novel

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9780786712847: How I Left the Great State of Tennessee and Went on to Better Things: A Novel

In the waning days of one of the most unrecognized American exoduses of the twentieth-century, millions of broken people have left the strip mines of Appalachia in search of better things. In 1961, two of these yearning souls—Dahlia Jean Coker, the teenage daughter of a sluttish mother and a deadbeat Daddy, and "Twitch," an ex-con descended from the legendary outlaw Younger clan—are looking for their own ways out. After a botched robbery by Twitch, Dahlia takes the lead—with Twitch's loot and his teenage son—while the old man gives chase, with revenge in his heart and Dahlia's mother by his side. Through the South, and finally on to a Key West reeling from the Bay of Pigs debacle, the chase is at once thrilling, heartbreaking, murderous, dark, and hilarious. Along the way, readers encounter a snake-handling evangelist, determined civil rights activists, equally determined Klansmen, and the unfortunate wife of an adulterous NASA scientist. Battling a Tennessee flood of biblical proportions and a looming Florida hurricane, Dahlia, Twitch, and their improbable traveling companions all land up at Dahlia's daddy's houseboat. The final showdown, with a fortune and dreams of a better life at stake, will have readers marveling.

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From Publishers Weekly:

The adventures of a plucky, restless 16-year-old in 1960s Appalachia come to life in Jackson's heartfelt, meandering first novel. Tenacious, outspoken Dahlia Jean Coker knows there's more to life than a dead-end waitress job and her "death by boredom" existence in Wattles, Tenn. When the diner she works in is robbed by a father and son team, Dahlia spots her opportunity and steals off with the brawny son, Cole Younger. Cole's father, Twitch, is left behind, boiling with resentment and a desire for revenge, but Dahlia and Cole are armed with cash, young love and wild abandon. They set off on a whirlwind chase across the South, with Twitch and Dahlia's wacky, duplicitous mother, Burma, close behind. Dahlia and Twitch adroitly alternate as narrators, and both provide thrilling commentary when a massive flood threatens the region and sends all parties careening across Tennessee, landing them face to face with the Ku Klux Klan, civil rights activists and Freedom Riders. In their search for Dahlia and Cole, Twitch and Burma get into plenty of trouble of their own, though love isn't in the cards for them. After a few revelations, second thoughts and an elated arrival in Key West, Dahlia and Cole meet a teenaged Cuban refugee named Rebeca, and all set sail to return her to her homeland. Though the story is told with zest and brims with drawling dialogue, the overload of frenzied escapades may wear some readers out, though others will appreciate Jackson's range and determination.
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From Booklist:

Jackson (Leavenworth Train, 2001) moves far away from his usual focus on the factual and semifactual in this long, strange trip of a novel, set in the chaotic South of the 1960s. Reading like a collaboration between Dorothy Allison and Carl Hiaasen, the story begins in Wattles, Tennessee, when a man and his son enter a local diner where the restless Dahlia Jean Coker, age 16, is working as a waitress. They intend to rob the place, but by the time the dust clears, the older thief, Twitch, is unconscious, and Dahlia is heading south in a stolen pink Cadillac with Twitch's dreamy son, $100,000 hidden inside of a moose's head, and a plan for finding her estranged father. Obstacles such as love, her mother, snakes, floods, Klansmen, freedom riders, and the very angry Twitch soon derail her plans, though, and the novel quickly turns into a picaresque jumble much like its title--rambling, convoluted, and darkly funny. Carrie Bissey
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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