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Book Review: Small town, big views on 'Whiskey Road'

Book cover of 2008 title 'Whiskey Road'
Photograph: George Kerrigan/Publisher: Washington Square Press

'Whiskey Road' by Karen Siplin


A black woman in a small, white town is going to stand out regardless. Dress her in black motorcycle leather, a duffel bag, one long pink hair extension and a helmet. Now she's even more noticeable. The locals may have been weary of Jimi Anne Hamilton before, but a black eye, busted lip, bruises and the limp from her ankle made them really want her to get the hell out of Wheeler's Coffee Shop in Darby, Pennsylvania.

But she stayed. And Caleb, a local white construction worker and mechanic, paid attention. He watched her. She watched him watch her. When the rest of the eatery attendees made her feel unwelcome enough after asking about a nearby motel, she finally left.

From the scars and the gruff mannerisms, Caleb may not look like the chivalrous type, but seeing a woman battered like that started to eat at him, and he finally found her outside half a mile away from the coffee shop.

Jimi was at her wit's end with trusting people. After a motorcycle accident and being robbed of her BMW K 1200 bike, she wondered whether her road trip from New York to California was worth it. She also wasn't sure she wanted to go back to her job as a paparazzo.

But by the time she got to Darby, she just needed to find a safe place to sleep off the 16-day trip. Although Caleb had a couple of cabins Jimi could've stayed in, he told her about The Inn at Frenchman's Bend instead, a five-minute drive from where her older brother Troy lived in the town of Willow Run.

Jimi soon learned that everybody in Darby was not alike, including the friendly inn worker Lucy. There was a cultural gray area in Darby: racism, hesitancy about travelers, a loner mentality and respecting privacy. Jimi met townspeople who fit the bill for at least one of the four, but her constant run-ins with Caleb made her wonder what his deal was.Which category did he fit into?

Caleb knew Darby's residents, and Darby's close-knit group knew he and his troublesome brother Morgan all too well. But he stuck out, too, and not just because within a few days he had a matching black eye to compliment his already gruff appearance from scars around his tattoos. The rest of the town seemed to either fear him or pity him, but one resident named Ray just wanted Caleb to stop sleeping with his wife Emma.

Caleb and Jimi were an odd pair to see flirting inside of Fifth Amendment Bar. Rose, the bar owner asked, "Were they giving away black eyes on special or something?"

When talking turned to drinking and drinking turned to groping and groping turned to kissing, some of the town's views on interracial dating were questioned. Caleb thought he didn't live in the kind of town or surround himself with the type of people who would care about race so much. They were good, hard-working Americans. But the reaction he got from his social circle made him think he didn't know them after all.

When Jimi finally paid a visit to Troy and his wife, she also wondered how her own family would treat Caleb if they knew he was more than just a construction worker. The only way to find out was to live their lives and watch the reaction.

As with author Karen Siplin's other two books "His Insignificant Other" and "Such a Girl," this is clever, funny and thoughtful writing. Siplin excels at making dialogue realistic, making characters loveable and/or worthy of a black eye, adding enough mystique to make readers want to know a character's backstory and creating unpredictable outcomes. Her characters are the types of people some readers would love to meet in real life if only to have a onetime conversation with them.

"Whiskey Road" is an easy read and worth reading over again. It also brings to mind countless questions about racism, sexism, elitism and marital issues. The writing manages to bring up all of these social and cultural issues without ever showing an inkling of evidence of being preachy. For topics like these, it's difficult to do that, but Siplin did. That's what makes this book an impressive tale.

Recommended Reading:

Q&A interview with Karen Siplin (Page 1, Page 2)

Karen Siplin's website

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