I finished reading Kathleen M. Rodgers’s second novel, Johnnie Come Lately, back in January (and it was reviewed by author-and-Army wife Jodie Cain Smith here the following month), but after re-reading it last week I feel compelled to throw my own voice into the crowd. I love this gem of a novel about the life and struggles of a woman named Johnnie Kitchen, who’s searching for answers about her own tumultuous past while along the way revealing a deep compassion for the struggling people she meets.
Now, I should start by saying that author Kathleen Rodgers has the kind of personal history I love to hear: an Air Force wife, she raised her two sons — one an artist, one a soldier — while pursuing a career in journalism on the side, and now she’s turned to writing novels.
She’s a tireless advocate for military families, and in getting to know her a bit over the past eight months or so I have witnessed the genuine encouragement she gives to other writers, military spouses, and veterans. While my own husband was deployed I received several messages from her which were so sweet and encouraging that they made me break into a smile.So I admire Kathleen Rodgers as a part of the writer and military-family community, but then she went and wrote a beautiful novel with such a layering of themes, and such a cast of knowable, humble, and true characters, that I just wanted to put out my own endorsement of her book.
Rodgers’s main gal, Johnnie Kitchen, was raised by her grandparents after her troubled mother mysteriously up and left. (Johnnie’s soldier father was killed in Vietnam.) Fortunately, Johnnie’s grandparents gave her the moral compass to become a generous and loving mother and wife. She’s raised three children, she’s a pillar in her community and church, she has a husband, Dale, who adores her.
But things aren’t all peaches and cream. Mortifyingly, Johnnie’s husband has just learned of the brief affair she had very early in their marriage, and it shakes the pedestal he’s put their union on all this time – so much so that he moves out. Then, their youngest son Cade joins the Army (it’s 2007, and the war on terror is grinding along with serious setbacks and no end in sight).
And perhaps most hauntingly, Johnnie’s long-gone mother has suddenly, for unknown reasons, been spotted around town again. Will she try to reconcile with the daughter she left so many years ago, or will she keep herself hidden away, like some specter in purgatory who simply can’t decide whether she’s coming or going?
The more I think about it, the notion of purgatory seems essential to Rodgers’s book. There’s a strong spiritual element to the story (Johnnie’s Texas town is called Portion), and Rodgers writes a collection of characters who are all struggling with burdens and decisions, some seen, most unseen.
Johnnie, observant and sensitive, sees more than most. She spies the smallest signs: scars on a classmate’s knuckles. The strange nighttime habits of a tortured neighbor. The flash of concern on her grandmother’s face when she sees Johnnie’s husband on crutches — a clue to a trauma deep in the family history. Johnnie’s observance is a blessing but also a curse, because she feels a responsibility for what will become of others. Will they choose to stay and fight — or, like her mother, will they slip away?
Johnnie has battled bulimia since pre-adolescence, and, under a sudden onslaught of stress, the old demons come calling. Though she surely can’t be blamed for having such an awful affliction, Johnnie feels guilty when she purges, as if that kind of sneaking around is the equivalent of her intermittently-trick-turning mother’s. But if she doesn’t quit, Johnnie could end up like Karen Carpenter: beautiful, too young to be dead. Bulimia is, Rodgers suggests, its own purgatory. When she’s sick, Johnnie can’t fully join the people around her, as if she’s always on the outskirts of life. When she’s well, she fears an eventual slide.
Is she staying, or is she going?
Finally, there’s Steven Tuttle (“Tutts”), a young family friend who is severely wounded by an IED blast in Iraq. Tutts survives, but one half of his face is disfigured. “When I look in the mirror, I see two people,” he writes to Johnnie. “On one side I see who I was. On the other side I see who I am now.” Suddenly he is like Janus, the god who can see both forward and backward (yet Rodgers writes him with a sweet and very real humanity). Tutts is grateful, he later implies, that he gets to live — unlike Johnnie’s K.I.A. father, whose name is listed simply as “UNKNOWN” on her birth certificate.
The distinction is profound. For all of the characters in this tender, powerful novel, there’s a before and an after. Something has changed them so entirely that they need to decide whether or not they’ll follow it into the abyss. Rodgers never sugar-coats anything — in fact, her scenes depicting Johnnie’s struggles with bulimia are by far the most honest, raw, and difficult descriptions of eating disorders I have ever read — but her novel comes down clearly on the side of hope.
“Thus you may understand that love alone
is the true seed of every merit in you,
and of all acts for which you must atone.”
— Dante, Purgatorio
Rodgers, Kathleen M. Johnnie Come Lately. Camel Press, 2015.