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Back Roads [Paperback]

Tawni O'Dell
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (304 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 31 2004
"One day you're that guy who's happy he managed to survive high school and get that almighty piece of paper, and you're thinking you might try to get a job at Redi-Mix concrete where your dad's worked since the beginning of time. And at least you've got a family you can stand even if they are all sisters.

One day you're that guy, and the next day you're assigned to a social worker and a therapist and given the choice of either being a LEGAL ADULT with three DEPENDENTS or an ORPHAN with NOBODY." --From Back Roads

Harley Altmyer should be in college drinking Rolling Rock and chasing girls. He should be freed from his closed-minded, stricken coal town, with its lack of jobs and no sense of humor. Instead, he's constantly reminded of just how messed up his life is.

With his mother in jail for killing his abusive father, Harley is an orphan with the responsibilities of an adult and the fiery, aggressive libido of a teenager. Just nineteen years old, he's marooned in the Pennsylvania backwoods caring for his three younger sisters, whose feelings about him range from stifling dependence to loathing. And once he develops an obsession with the sexy, melancholic mother of two living down the road, those Victoria's Secret catalogs just won't do the trick anymore. He wants Callie Mercer so badly he fears he will explode. But it's the family secrets, the lies, and the unspoken truths that light the fuse and erupt into a series of staggering surprises, leaving what's left of his family in tatters. Through every ordeal, the unforgettable Harley could never know that his endearing humor, his love for his sisters, and his bumbling heroics would redeem them all.

Funny and heartbreaking, Tawni O'Dell's pitch-perfect characters capture the maddening confusion of adolescence and the prickly nature of family with irony and unerring honesty. Back Roads is a riveting novel by a formidable new talent.


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Product Description

From Amazon

Oprah Book Club® Selection, March 2000: Not since S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders) has a female novelist penned such a tough and titillating portrait of lower-class, crime-ridden manhood. Set in "beautiful, ruined" western Pennsylvania, amid Eat n' Parks and Lick n' Putts, Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads follows Harley Altmyer as he walks a raging, self-conscious line between crime and innocence. Why is he being held by the authorities, and what's he so mad about? In the recent past, it's his mother, who murdered his father and went to jail for life. In the far past, it's Dad himself: an abusive, hopeless man. In the present, it's the responsibility for his three younger sisters, which makes him fantasize about smashing their faces in until they "spit up bloody macaroni and cheese."

But Harley still has a conscience--barely. He doesn't strike his sisters; he's been trying to protect them. The oldest is sassy Amber, 16, who's having sex on the living-room couch with townies who abuse her; next is frighteningly stoic 12-year-old Misty, with eyes "a glazed brown like a medicine bottle"; the youngest is adorable Jody, who at 6 pens to-do lists with items such as "PRAY FOR DADDYS SOWL." Overburdened with the practicalities of life, and the ever-mounting losses, Harley has started seeing his own words floating in the air in front of his face. "CLOSURE. TRUTH. MOST GUYS."

This first novel opens well. O'Dell does an impeccable job of making Harley both brutal and forgivable. Here, for instance, he retreats to his basement room: "I lay there until dawn, thinking about Dad, and feeling the same useless frustration I had felt the first time I had seen him piss on a sparkling white drift of pure new snow."

But that delicacy is soon lost, and Back Roads risks becoming an overabundant affair, pitched high, with a roller-coaster trajectory. Harley's anger metamorphoses into an almost bloodthirsty lust for his sexy, middle-aged neighbor, which stirs up myriad forbidden family secrets. Misty, it turns out, has been hiding something. Amber revolts. And even Jody's scribbles turn malevolent. While the writing is good throughout, the tension and plotting assume an unpleasant adolescent posture--bodice-ripping passion and mordant gloom combined. Nonetheless, O'Dell's assured and touching portrait of her protagonist emerges unscathed. You will likely remember luckless, fated Harley Altmyer long after his tsunamic tale has receded. And no matter what the judge decides, you will understand why this impoverished, angry young man was probably the most innocent one of all. --Jean Lenihan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Nineteen-year-old Harley is left to rear his three younger sisters after their mother is imprisoned for murdering their abusive father in this searing, hardscrabble Party of Five set in Pennsylvania mining country. Doubly resentful because his best friend is off at college, Harley spends his days slogging as a Shop Rite bagger and appliance-shop delivery person, coming home to cold cereal dinners prepared by six-year-old Jody. Harley is bitter about having to take over for his motherA"she still had us kids but we didn't have her"Aand he can't shake the feeling that she prefers prison to their home life; a mystery lingers around his father's death. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Amber is sleeping her way through the town's teenage boys and flaunting her body in front of Harley; middle sister Misty, once her father's favorite and his hunting companion, practices shooting. Desperate for relief, Harley finds solace in rough but exhilarating encounters with married Callie Mercer, little Jody's best friend's mother, losing his virginity to her on a muddy creek bank and reveling in her sophisticated, sensitive words. But memories are stirring in his subconscious, and erotic dreams of the Virgin Mary metamorphose into nightmarish sexual visions. In his sessions with a court-appointed therapist, Harley edges closer to understanding his family's twisted dynamic, but it is only when the horrors of the present begin to catch up with those of the past that a series of shattering truths are revealed. By then it is too late for Harley to save everyone he loves, but in sacrificing himself, however hopelessly, he introduces a note of grace. O'Dell's scorching tale touches on all the tropes of dysfunctional families, but her characters fight free of stereotypes, taking on an angry, authentic glow. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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All those times me and Skip tried to kill his little brother, Donny, were just for fun. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and disturbing May 30 2004
By Moe
Format:Mass Market Paperback
I could not put this book down. I read it in two days. Deeply disturbing and very sad. Harley, a 19 year old boy is left to care for his three sisters after his mother is sent to prison for shooting her husband (so we are led to believe). It is strange to see that Harley ends up taking the blame for shooting Callie just like his mother ends up taking the blame for shooting her husband. Tawni (the author) is very good at describing her characters and making you feel as though you know them personally. I would definitely recommend this book to fellow readers but would caution them around the contents.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not for young readers... July 14 2004
By A Customer
Format:Mass Market Paperback
I have worked with Emotionally Disturbed teenagers as an English teacher for 10 years. In that time, I have heard stories of abuse that are so disturbing I thought nothing could shock me. This book shocked me. I didn't know what I was getting into when I picked it up. The back and cover are very misleading. I feel, after reading this, that I know now exactly what Holden Caufield was trying to protect kids from. Many times during reading this book I thought of putting it down and not finishing it. It was written in such a way, though, that I felt compelled to finish it. In fact, I read the last 100 pages in one sitting. I am warning the faint of heart, the weak of stomach, the prudes out there who don't want to hear about things that make people uncomfortable: Don't buy this book. For the rest of you, be open-minded, read it, and think about ways to make this world a better, safer place for those who need it most.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Troubling, distubing even, and unforgetable March 10 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Some praise this book while others trash it, but with all such things the truth of the matter lies somewhere in the murky middle much like the characters, sad tragic and damaged souls, tormented by a history they had no control over and future that seems even more uncontrolable than their past, but these are no saints. Outside of the littlest girl there seems not a socially acceptable quality amoung them and yet the reader can't quite bring themselves to do what society has done with them - close the book and hope they go away.
It took me a while, but at length I found the author was taking reader on a journey. This isn't entertainment as much as expereince and as such it become a fascinating view into the world of abuse and ideas so evil one can hardly comprehend. Perhaps the main character's fear voiced when confronting his 16 year old sister about the abusive guy she is considering living with are most telling, "Would you stay home if I hit you?" I shared his horror that she is going to say, yes.
The language is foul at times, but revealing of the characters background. Some may be appalled at the young man's poor choices, awful problem solving techniques and his constant desire for sexual intimacy in the most animal terms, but is this all that shocking in a character whose entire existence has lacked the most important of all human elements - love?
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Hard Look at Life Feb. 28 2004
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Wow! This book was not at all what I was expecting. I thought it was going to be about Harley, who was going through hard times trying to raise his other 3 sisters after their mother shot and killed their father. It was about a lot more than that.
This book is kind of a look into the lives of children who have suffered abuses at the hands of their parents- emotional, physical or sexual. This families life was completely screwed up! I'm quite used to graphic writing, but even I was surprised at some of the violent thoughts in this book. Which is why I have a hard time with everyone calling Harley a hero- I don't see that.
It's really a sad story. You keep wishing for things to get better for this little family, but it just seems to get worse and worse. I do agree with some of the other readers- this book is a bit flawed. I just feel like the resolution and ending was not quite worth it. And the character development wasn't up to par. I think it could have been improved. Or maybe it was that I was just looking for a happy ending. Be warned, this book is often hard to read, it's a sobering subject. But maybe it's a story that needed to be told.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read... Aug. 26 2003
Format:Mass Market Paperback
I enjoyed Back Roads, and while I was reading it, I found I could barely put it down. Tawni O'Dell tells the story of a troubled young man forced to be an adult too soon. Though disturbed by his violent fantasies (which contributed to the suspense of the book), I found I like the character and even laughed out loud at some of his views of the world. (Asking to the talk to the bank, for instance, was very clever.) I don't know if this book will stand out in my mind over the next few months or years, but it definitely kept me enthralled while I was reading it.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Captivating but flawed May 28 2003
By A Customer
Format:Mass Market Paperback
I bought Back Roads solely because it was on the sale rack at the bookstore. I do not regret my purchase, but have a few problems with this book. In it, Harley, a 19-year-old boy, must take care of and provide for his three younger sisters, one of which is a [mean] 16 year old who has sex with every guy in their small town. Harley's past is tainted by the abuse of his father and the murder committed by his mother. Not being a child of abuse myself, I don't know what kind of pain is experienced by these children, but I have never met ANY 19-year-old (man OR woman) who cries as much as Harley does in this novel. I found the book to be depressing, but truthful. It's certainly not for the weak-stomached. The book's ending was strange to say the least, I'm not sure incest was a necessary factor in a story that already included [so much else] but Hey, that's just me. THe book is quick-paced but ultimately dissapointing. I would reccomend this book for someone who usually likes Oprah's picks, it follows her typical themes of depression and abuse in families. Still, I have to saym if your going to read an Oprah book about families, I enjoyed THE RAPTURE OF CANAAN much more(it's also about a teenager in a bad situation). Overall, it was a good debut, but I hope O'Dell's next book is a little lighter and perhaps a little more realistic.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Overdone and gross
I recently read this book, and I was dissapointed. I saw that is was part of Oprah's book club, so i took a chance and decided to read it. Read more
Published on Aug. 27 2004 by Rachel
4.0 out of 5 stars Back Roads
Back Roads, by Tawni O'Dell, was a great book. I thought that Harvey, the main character, was the best character I have read about in a long time. Read more
Published on May 27 2003 by Bridget
5.0 out of 5 stars Highway Through Hell
The author IS the protaganist in this sick story of incest, violence and murder. The reader is artfully allowed inside Ms O'Dell's mind as she lays bare the desperation of a... Read more
Published on April 19 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark, disturbing, but a wonderfully sad coming-of-age story
Back Roads examines the effects of physical and sexual abuse
on children. It is an excellent book for that reason... Read more
Published on March 14 2003 by M. Gardner
5.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't put it down!
I loved how the characters past experiences were explained while they lived and struggled day to day. Tawni writes in a way that flows like a river, not confusing at all. Read more
Published on March 11 2003 by Melissa Mai
4.0 out of 5 stars Draws You in and then Slams You in the End!
I started reading this book as soon as I received it and found that I liked the characters in it so much that I couldn't put it down. Read more
Published on Feb. 18 2003 by Sherry P.
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my favorites!
This is a dark tale about hardship, family, and all of the things nobody ever likes to talk about. Once I started reading this book, I couldn't put it down. Read more
Published on Feb. 13 2003 by lal0020
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