Reviewed by Donna Meredith
It’s Not Like I Knew Her, by Pat Spears, shines as a classic coming-of-age story exploring a young woman’s poignant awakening of forbidden desire.
This Tallahassee writer and Florida State University graduate wrangles words with the clarity and style of a true wordsmith. Her sentences percolate with the right rhythms and the perfect balance between clarity and sophisticated variety. This superior craftsmanship makes reading her fiction a literary experience to treasure.
Meet Jodie Taylor, returning home in 1963, battered suitcase in hand, seven years after leaving without a word or note. She has come back to take care of her father, who is recovering from a stroke. Red Dozier took Jodie in after her mother died, an act requiring great courage, because the girl is his bastard, and Red’s wife despises this public reminder of his infidelity.
Although Jodie had at last started to find her place in the world in a new town, she walks away from this beginning to nurse Red back to health.
Through these two acts, Spears swiftly establishes Jodie and Red as deeply decent, though seriously flawed, humans.
Then the novel backtracks to 1948. Jodie’s mother Jewel is a waitress and wannabe singer with big dreams and few chances to see them come true. Despite loving Jodie, Jewel fails miserably as mother and caregiver. Reversing roles, Jodie has meals ready for her mother when she comes home from work, fixes her mother’s drinks, and prepares soaks for her mother’s tired feet.
As thanks, her mother boots Jodie from their shared bed to make room for a new boyfriend, the leader of a band, whose members also share the tiny home: “The makeshift cot in the kitchen was [Jodie’s] full-time. She slept among the odors of onion, potatoes, whiskey, and sweaty men who sprawled about the front room on made-down pallets, their drunken snoring every bit as pretty as their playing.” Eventually her mother dumps her at a relative’s house so she can chase her fantasy of becoming a Grand Ole Opry star.
Despite Jewel’s flaws, Spears handles her with sympathy: “lives at the bottom got remade by circumstances they were more often than not powerless to change. There were times when running was all they had.”
With Ginger, the girl next door, Jodie experiences the first tingling of desire when her “stomach is fluttering with what exactly she isn’t sure.” Even though young, Jodie intuits that people would not approve of the nature of her desire. The idea of having to hide and deny who she is angers Jodie, but she is equally terrified of telling family or friends the truth.
From the moment she watches the Dallas Cowgirls play at her school, she senses these women would accept her. She wouldn’t stick out as too tall and athletic for a girl. She wouldn’t stick out as queer.
Seeing no way to live publicly as who she is, Jodie runs away, hoping to try out for the Cowgirls. From the outset, her journey goes awry, with one setback after another. Just as she makes progress toward achieving her goals, a childhood friend informs her of Red’s stroke, and Jodie heads home, circling back to the story’s beginning.
Suspense builds over whether Jodie will be able to achieve either of her dreams. Will Red recover, or will he require her help indefinitely? Will family and friends accept her when they learn the truth? Will she find the means and money to reach Dallas—and will she be good enough to make the team even if she does?
The novel successfully explores the burgeoning awareness of sexual desire, a confusing passage for every human, and all the more confusing and terrifying to Jodie because her specific desire is unacceptable to the culture in which she lives. Intensifying her fears, Jodie witnesses the damage done to others who try to hide their true selves from the world. The self-imposed loneliness. The public pretense of being just friends. Spears does a superb job of allowing readers to feel Jodie’s fear and also her joy when she discovers she is not alone.
The author’s gift for characterization is evident in Jodie’s internal musings. Here is Jodie’s impression of Red: “He kept a straight face, and Jodie decided that Red Dozier was likely good at poker.” Jodie’s take on her closest male friend: “Silas had a special knack for explaining away all things contrary to what he wanted to believe.” And Maggie, an older woman who lives near Red: “Maggie was born to boss” and the “day either [Silas or Jodie] could outfish Maggie would be the day Maggie shaved her underarms.”
The novel is replete with perfect images like those of the heat waves that “jitterbugged across the sun-bleached landscape in the direction of the cotton fields,” or like Ginger’s smile that was “soft like a kitten’s paw.”
Stories that plumb the deepest truths always require bleeding on the page. This time the blood is spent to increase our understanding of the wide range of human sexual experiences. It’s Not Like I Knew Her lays bare the anguish caused by self-denial.
Spears’s fiction has been published in North American Review, Appalachian Heritage, Common Lives Lesbian Lives, Seven Hills Review, Habersham Review and the anthologies Bridges and Borders and Saints & Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2012, Snake Nation Review and the anthology Crimes and Misdemeanors. Her short story “Whelping” was a finalist for the 2013 Rash Award, and her story “Stranger At My Door” received honorable mention in the 2013 Lorian Hemingway Short Story competition.
Her first novel, Dream Chaser, was also published in 2014 by Twisted Road Publications.
Spears has been a high school social studies teacher and state economic education consultant, Title IX advocate, executive for a small educational publishing company, business entrepreneur, and home accessibility consultant. Currently she is retired and living her life-long dream of being a full-time writer.