Book Review by Heidi Simmons
Back Roads
Tawni O’Dell
A Novel

There are stories that weave a dramatic narrative with intensity and emotion. Tawni O’Dell’s Back Roads (Viking, 338 pages) captures an authentic voice of suffering and confusion in this coming-of-age story set in the woods of Pennsylvania.

Back Roads is the story of nineteen year-old Harley Altmyer who must take care of his three sisters after his mother is convicted of killing his father. He might have gone to college, but instead Harley ends up the guardian of 16 year-old Amber, 10 year-old Misty and 6 year-old Jodi.

Harley works two crappy jobs to provide food and pay the mortgage. He is always short on funds and unsure he’ll be able to have the money to pay the property taxes. He refuses to take welfare and is forced to see a mental health counselor. He struggles to understand the females who depend on him for everything.


The girls do not respect him as head of household and Amber challenges and criticizes whatever he does. Misty wants to dress like her sister, wear make-up and go on the pill even though she’s only ten. The three constantly butt heads and the girls take sides against Harley. It is an uber dysfunctional family as they try to understand and sort out their new lives without parents.

Troubled and lonely, Harley wears his father’s old jacket to be close to him. He seldom showers, likes beer and is easily aroused.

Harley has difficulty relating to girls his own age, but starts an affair with his neighbor, a married mother of two, whose daughter is best friends with little Jodi. It is a dangerous relationship doomed to fail in an ugly way.

Author O’Dell tells the story as a first person narrative from Harley’s point of view. She aptly captures a teenage boy’s voice as well as his frustrations and desires. Harley’s character is neither precocious nor sophisticated. He is a regular guy who is in way over his head with dark family secrets he desperately wants to understand. He does not always do the right thing or fully understand the consequences of his actions. All the kids are real people — sad, troubled and trying to cope in a complicated world.

It is through Harley’s painful growth and unfolding observations that the reader starts to grasp the horrors that brought the family to the place they are now. It is a book about abuse and incest. Harley must ultimately face his demons but the demons are under his roof and they are children suffering from the same evil.

Back Roads is O’Dell’s first book. It was published in 2000. Before it was printed Oprah’s people read an advance copy and Oprah wanted it for her Book Club. The subject matter is meaningful to Oprah. Back Roads has sold two million copies and has been in development to be made into a movie by director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction and Flashdance). O’Dell has since written three more novels.

Some way or some how we want to believe that Harley and his sister will finally be okay. It is a story about family and the intense challenges and sacrifices it takes to survive. O’Dell writes well and she weaves a layered story that is hard to put down.