Review by E. Kirshe
After spending 18 years in prison, Jodi returns to her home in West Virginia’s mountains. Dealing overwhelmingly with redemption, as well as home and maybe more importantly, place, this well-paced novel also beautifully tells a story of imperfect people trying to stitch together their broken lives.
“Until a week and a half ago she had thought she would not return until her death- a body shipped back to a family that barely rmemebered it, a body to be laid back into the mountains to rest- but now here she was not just a body but a jumble of wild thoughts and emotions, coming home.”
Sentenced to life in prison at age seventeen, Jodi didn’t leave behind much of a life to re-build, but she does have dreams of creating one- settling down on her grandmother’s beautiful and wild stretch of land in the mountains where she was raised. Jodi does, however, have one piece of unfinished business, fulfilling a pact she made with Paula, her dead girlfriend, to rescue her brother from their abusive family home.
Just a few pages in you’ll know that Maren is an incredibly skilled, poetic writer. After a beautifully detailed greyhound bus ride (literally every detail in this book is beautifully written), Jodi’s first stop is in a small town to pick up Paula’s brother Ricky, who is now a troubled grown man. In the same span of just a few days (all of this happening before Jodi has to be home to make her first parole meeting) she also meets and quickly falls for Miranda Golden, wife of a faded country star and, though still in her twenties, mother of three. This cobbled together group heads off to Jodi’s land all with the insane hope of creating a new run at life.
They do find a sort of peace for a while, comfortably settling into the land, which is as important as any character in the story. Maren’s best descriptions are of the natural world, and it’s this beauty that lets the characters feel at home for a little while. “The steady murmur of the trees stretching over a landscape so old it was half hidden in itself, a land that had been sinking for so long its surface was only a scrim over the density that lay below. It was this, Jodi thought, this thick secrecy that haunted her, kept her coming back and wanting more, dreaming of the place even when she was in the midst of it.”
It’s not all as beautiful and painless as they imagine. From the moment they arrive in their new lives there are obvious difficulties. Despite the beauty of her home remaining, the West Virginia town is ravaged by economic struggle (an EBT card is the household’s main source of food), a drug epidemic (which Jodi’s brother brings into her home), fracking (a nearby neighbor shows he can set his water on fire) which threatens to consume Jodi’s land. It turns out the land isn’t Jodi’s, as it was sold out from under her while she was in prison. All of these vast elements directly intersect with our main story which only gets more complicated the more Maren shares.
“She thought of the mountains back at Jaxton, those green swells that she had never even known existed until her last day. She’d taken that flat sky over the exercise yard to be everything but she had known so little.”
This is furthered by the choppy back and forth the story takes between the summer of 1989 before Jodi goes to prison and the near-present 2007. That summer Jodi spent on a drug-fueled road trip with Paula, as the two support themselves through Paula’s card playing skills and petty crimes. Just as this story cuts through the present, Jodi’s thoughts on her past keep creeping in on her even as she keeps the details of what happened secret from the new people in her life. Though we know early on why Jodi is in prison, the reader is left to piece together the details of that summer throughout the book, the actual moment the crime occurs isn’t fully described until near the end of the story.
Jodi’s is not the only story that becomes fully detailed as the book goes on. The key players all have some major secrets, making this character driven work all the more appealing even with the other plot elements in play.
Sugar Run is a gorgeously told and paced novel with so many unique elements pulled together to create a strange, enjoyably sprawling, read.