After I finished reading Hometown by Michele Feltman Strider, I learned that she wrote a serial about one of the secondary characters in the novel I’d completed. Homestyle was originally published in 2017 as a monthly serial you could get on Amazon. Now, it’s sold as a complete novel.
Set in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, about as far south in that part of the U.S. that you can get without falling into the ocean, we meet Jolene Harris, a twenty-seven-year-old hair stylist who works at her mother’s salon inside a trailer. A steady rotation of customers come in for trims, entire make-overs to become new women, manicures, and a little pampering set-and-style. Each has a story to tell, often of love lost of some two-timing philanderer who made the teller’s life hell, and Jolene, Rhoda, and their nail technician, Thuy, all listen like therapists. The other salon patrons have adroit, “homestyle” advice for each other:
“It never occurred to me to ask if he had a wife, let alone three.”
“Oh, you gotta ask.” Nancy shook her head, sagely. “That’s on you. If they lie about it, then it’s on them.”
There’s definitely an overall vibe of down-south poverty: vehicle repossession, mobile homes, drinking all day, baby daddies, etc. Jolene is unusual at twenty-seven for not having children or any divorces, but is dating her own “no-‘count” boyfriend, Keith, whose sole skills for surviving are mooching off girlfriends and scheming. Even Jolene’s mother, Rhoda, has three divorces behind her. Possibly because people don’t see marriage working out around them, Jolene doesn’t appear to take planning her wedding to Keith seriously:
And we’re gonna yell ‘yee-haw’ and fist bump instead of saying ‘I do.’
But I was struck by how not cliche these characters are, and how much I care about what happened next when life seems both desperate and laid back, fun yet oppressive. Jolene rides the highs of a fun weekend in New Orleans with her bestie, returning home to discover the friend was head-banging on the motel bed and got her hair caught in the ceiling fan motor and had to be cut free. Through the lows, Jolene becomes a couch monster, eating cookies and red Kool-aid for dinner while watching her Bears — the Care Bears, that is.
I wanted so badly for Jolene to break up with Keith, but her circumstances are evaluated out by others: she doesn’t have a baby, he doesn’t have babies, so she could do worse. Is that enough? But look around — what else would Jolene expect? She’s not going to transport herself into scholar, career woman, and all-around responsibly adult who stops being a ball of juvenile fun. In a way I didn’t realize until I finished the novel, Michele Feltman Strider doesn’t judge her characters either in the narration or through the mouths of others, even though they nearly set themselves up to be judged. Thus, it’s hard to feel ill-will toward anyone or get too frustrated when they do what I wouldn’t. Not being led to feel one way made the setting and characters feel new because I didn’t know how they would surprise me.
The sensory details created a whole world for me. I found myself getting very hungry every time Jolene and Rhoda ate the rotation of frozen pizza, BBQ, and pork rinds. Each chapter begins with the screen door of Rhoda’s trailer slamming shut when Jolene enters, and I could hear that slap so (I half expected to hear my own parents yell, “Quit slamming the door!”). However, I did wish there were more outdoor descriptions; I kept placing the novel in the Midwest and then reminding myself this is a bayou. Should there be mosquitoes? Alligators? Palm trees? I wanted to see it, to hear the buzz of life. On the other hand, the dialect, idioms, and types of businesses and vehicles all reminded me I was in the south.
Homestyle made me laugh out loud on many occasions, especially the clever quips Jolene adds to a conversation that didn’t fail to remind me of Zora Neale Hurston‘s Florida stories. Yet, I also was left thinking. When the characters are wronged so hard, how do forgive? I’m not sure they do, at least not out loud. There was a tricky social contract even the most heart-broken characters followed that made them empathetic and supportive. Because I typically read before bed, I would lay awake thinking about Jolene, about her hardships and full heart and big personality, and wonder, “What is she doing right now?” as if she were a real person.
A follow-up with the author of Homestyle, Michele Feltman Strider
Because there were a few parts that kept me up at night, I reached out to the author to ask some questions about Homestyle. Thanks to the author for taking the time to respond.
Grab the Lapels: Tell me about your process for choosing the food your characters eat. I was definitely craving chips and looking up beef stroganoff recipes while reading!
Michele Feltman Strider: It is an unwritten law in the South that when two or more people gather for longer than 10 minutes, there must be a meal. For Jolene, I tried to think of food that was quick and inexpensive, as she and Rhoda have been busy their whole lives. Also, I thought Jolene would prefer food that’s fun to eat — drippy and messy and handsy. I tried to make sure most of what they ate was actually available in Bayou La Batre.
GTL: Since the characters in Homestyle talk about going to Biloxi, I looked up your setting (Bayou La Batre, Alabama) to see if it’s on the map and how far it is from Biloxi. The Bayou is there! What is your relationship to this real place?
MFS: I moved north to Alabama in the mid 80s, from South Florida, and Bayou La Batre was one of the first southern towns I visited. My parents took us to see the Blessing of the Fleet boat parade, expecting something like the boat parades on the international waterway in Miami. It was not that. Instead, it was the cutest little small town gathering ever, held on the grounds of the local Catholic Church. The food broke my brain. I’d never even seen gumbo before. Every girl under 18 had on a sash and tiara and a neat, poofy dress and had won some local beauty contest. The accents were WILD. I got to ride on a shrimp trawler. It was my first deep dive into the Deep South, and it made an impression. It’s become an avatar for the entire Gulf Coast for me.
It’s a place in transition. When I left, South Florida was still dealing with the aftermath of a large influx of Cuban immigrants from the Mariel Boat Lift. Bayou La Batre was dealing with a very similar situation and was years farther along in the process. In the late 70s, many Vietnamese families relocated to the bayou, changing the racial and cultural makeup of what had been a fairly homogeneous population. (Though not the industry, as many were fishing families who fit neatly into that shrimping community.) In the mid-80s, the transition was still in process. If you go today, you will hear ‘Bama accents coming out of Asian-looking faces [GTL: like Thuy, the nail technician]. Most of the baby beauty queens have dark hair and tan skin. More and more families and food are mixed. It’s America in a microcosm, and that could not be more interesting to me.
GTL: Homestyle easily could have been a novel about people done wrong, but there was so much unspoken forgiveness. I don’t remember anyone apologizing, but people aren’t mad, either. Where did you learn or develop this strange social dance?
MFS: Jesus says to forgive and forget. Rhoda would say he’s half right.
My parents retired to a small town and it’s something I’ve observed over time. You never forget a person’s character, but you might have to overlook some behaviors. When there are only so many people in town and everyone is related in some way — family, work, religious community — you have to learn to get along, regardless. You’re going to see your ex. You’re going to run into that person you hate. It’s unavoidable. You don’t exactly forget. Nor exactly forgive, because then all parties would have to address and acknowledge the wrong. Instead, it becomes just another thing that happened. Life goes on. You move on. It’s a sort of radical acceptance born of mutual need.
GTL: You can check out more of Feltman Strider at her website and connect with her on the social media listed there.