Back Roads

Back Roads

by Tawni O'Dell

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE

Funny and heartbreaking, this New York Times bestselling debut perfectly captures the maddening confusion of adolescence and the prickly nature of family with irony and unerring honesty.

Harley Altmyer should be in college having the time of his life. He should be free from the backwards Pennsylvania coal town he calls home, with its lack of jobs and no sense of humor. Instead, he’s constantly reminded of just how messed up everything is...

Harley’s mother is in prison for killing his father, so he’s in charge of bringing up his younger sisters and working two jobs to pay the bills—and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for distractions. But lately, he’s getting more and more sidetracked by lusting after Callie Mercer, his middle-aged neighbor. As he struggles to keep it together, things begin to spin out of control. Soon Harley finds that as shattered as his family is, there are still more crushing surprises in store.

“In Harley, O’Dell has created a hero who’s heartbreakingly believable; like Holden Caulfield, he uses caustic humor to hide his pain. Readers will care very much about him and his future, if indeed he has one.”—St. Petersburg Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451212450
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/01/2004
Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 171,970
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Tawni O’Dell is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including Back Roads, which was an Oprah’s Book Club pick, a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection, and is now a major motion picture. She is also a contributor to several anthologies, including Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female. Her works have been published in more than forty countries.

Read an Excerpt

BACK ROADS
by Tawni O'Dell

 

INTRODUCTION
Praised as "hilarious, moving, and deeply disturbing," (Mademoiselle) this extraordinary debut novel features one of the most unforgettable voices to emerge in recent years, as we enter the world of Harley Altmyer, a nineteen-year-old in rural Pennsylvania struggling to raise his three younger sisters after his mother goes to jail for his father's murder.

"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.

 

ABOUT TAWNI O'DELL

Tawni O'Dell, a western Pennsylvania native, earned a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. In addition to earning wages as a bank teller and a waitress, she put herself through college working as an exotic dancer jumping out of cakes at bachelor parties. A mother of two, she lives with her husband in Illinois. Back Roads is her first novel.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Harley Altmyer is a complicated figure. He is part saint, part sinner; part child, part man. Discuss these contradictions. Which parts of him do you like? Which do you dislike?
     
  2. How might Harley be different in other circumstances? Could he have had a normal life despite his abusive upbringing if he wasn't caring for his three sisters?
     
  3. Harley sometimes has violent physical fantasies, many of them aimed at women. Do you think his fantasies are worrisome? Normal? To be expected, given his circumstances?
     
  4. There are very few male influences in Harley's life. He obviously grew up in a family with fairly traditional gender roles. Yet Harley was not interested in hunting, sports, or other "manly" pursuits. Do you think this was a subconscious rejection of his father's worst masculine qualities? What effect do you think his father's scorn had on Harley's self-esteem?
     
  5. Discuss why Amber is such a tragic figure. Did you feel that way even before the climax of the book? Why does Amber seek safety and comfort in the arms of all the wrong people? Why does it infuriate Harley? Are the reasons more complex than you initially suspected?
     
  6. Why does Harley's mother take responsibility for the shooting? Do you think she did the wrong thing? In what ways was her false confession further abdication of her maternal responsibilities?
     
  7. Discuss the theme of character as it applies to Misty. Do you think she is beyond redemption? Should Harley's mother have assumed her new role as head of the family and sought help for Misty?
     
  8. Harley's father is as complicated a figure as Harley. In many ways, he is painted as a decent, hardworking, loving man. Does his casual violence negate all that? And how culpable is Harley's mother for overlooking the beatings?
     
  9. Sexual tension between Harley and Amber is evident throughout this story. Is a certain portion of this natural when teens reach puberty? Did you find the violent love/hate relationship between Harley and Amber explained by their semi-incestuous past?
     
  10. Do you think it's significant that Harley's first sexual relationship is with a woman who is much older, married and has children? In what ways does Callie mother Harley, and do you find that interesting in relationship to the themes of abandonment and incest that run through the book?

Table of Contents

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"An intense story of family, frailty and dysfunction, set in the coal-mining towns of western Pennsylvania...captivatingly told." —Chicago Tribune

"Tense...involving...deftly captures the voice of a teenage boy who's in trouble." —New York Times Book review

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
Praised as "hilarious, moving, and deeply disturbing," (Mademoiselle) this extraordinary debut novel features one of the most unforgettable voices to emerge in recent years, as we enter the world of Harley Altmyer, a nineteen-year-old in rural Pennsylvania struggling to raise his three younger sisters after his mother goes to jail for his father's murder."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 RoadsHarley 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.

 


ABOUT TAWNI O'DELL

Tawni O'Dell, a western Pennsylvania native, earned a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. In addition to earning wages as a bank teller and a waitress, she put herself through college working as an exotic dancer jumping out of cakes at bachelor parties. A mother of two, she lives with her husband in Illinois. Back Roads is her first novel.

 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • Harley Altmyer is a complicated figure. He is part saint, part sinner; part child, part man. Discuss these contradictions. Which parts of him do you like? Which do you dislike?
     
  • How might Harley be different in other circumstances? Could he have had a normal life despite his abusive upbringing if he wasn't caring for his three sisters?
     
  • Harley sometimes has violent physical fantasies, many of them aimed at women. Do you think his fantasies are worrisome? Normal? To be expected, given his circumstances?
     
  • There are very few male influences in Harley's life. He obviously grew up in a family with fairly traditional gender roles. Yet Harley was not interested in hunting, sports, or other "manly" pursuits. Do you think this was a subconscious rejection of his father's worst masculine qualities? What effect do you think his father's scorn had on Harley's self-esteem?
     
  • Discuss why Amber is such a tragic figure. Did you feel that way even before the climax of the book? Why does Amber seek safety and comfort in the arms of all the wrong people? Why does it infuriate Harley? Are the reasons more complex than you initially suspected?
     
  • Why does Harley's mother take responsibility for the shooting? Do you think she did the wrong thing? In what ways was her false confession further abdication of her maternal responsibilities?
     
  • Discuss the theme of character as it applies to Misty. Do you think she is beyond redemption? Should Harley's mother have assumed her new role as head of the family and sought help for Misty?
     
  • Harley's father is as complicated a figure as Harley. In many ways, he is painted as a decent, hardworking, loving man. Does his casual violence negate all that? And how culpable is Harley's mother for overlooking the beatings?
     
  • Sexual tension between Harley and Amber is evident throughout this story. Is a certain portion of this natural when teens reach puberty? Did you find the violent love/hate relationship between Harley and Amber explained by their semi-incestuous past?
     
  • Do you think it's significant that Harley's first sexual relationship is with a woman who is much older, married and has children? In what ways does Callie mother Harley, and do you find that interesting in relationship to the themes of abandonment and incest that run through the book?
  • Customer Reviews

    Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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    Back Roads 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 177 reviews.
    Nicole Poliskey More than 1 year ago
    This was a story for only the bravest of readers because it is so heartwrenching. The characters were people that most would not want to know but still rather amazing. Please give it a chance!
    SarahJane26 More than 1 year ago
    This was amazingly well written and true to life. There are some pretty twisted and dramatic topics in this book, but if you are grossed out or offended by them, you have missed the point. Tawni O'dell isn't some sicko writing about an incestuous relationship between brother and sister, rather two characters who have been damaged and betrayed by those whom they trusted. If you miss the fact that they are not even attracted to each other sexually and that they associate love with physical closeness, then you are bound to miss several other important messages. It is more complex than its "Jerry Springer" twists and turns. The story is about sacrifice, trust, and the basic needs of the human soul, among other things. Take a chance to get to know these characters, dare to delve into the minds of children who have been forced to cope with the harsh realities of betrayal & abandonment, and all of the contradicting and irrationally rational feelings that come along with it all.
    LaceHatt More than 1 year ago
    phenomenal. one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life. I fell in love with Harley's sarcastic and blunt humor. O' Dell has an amazing talent when it comes to capturing moments and thoughts. Even though it's fiction, She reviles thoughts that are relatable but no one would ever admit. By the end, my jaw had several moments when it dropped, very unexpected twists and turns. I didn't want to end it, knowing there would be no more Harley. by the end, you just grow to have a compassion for the whole family. After reading, the book haunts you. excellent.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    GOOD BOOK. One of Oprahs original book club story. Had some kind of bizarre moments but kept me going!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I love this writer. Her prose is so descriptive and thought-provoking that by the time I've finished one of her books, there are several pages turned down at the corners with descriptions or ideas that are so great I want to go back to read them again!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Very poignant book about a family torn aparat by abuse, murder, cover ups and a 19 year old left to raise his sisters.
    Luceman More than 1 year ago
    I appreciate the depth of how true she is able to capture the mind and heart of a struggling young boy who grows up in a broken home that forces and depends on him to become the "default" man of the house. She dares to boldly characterize his feelings and attitudes toward his longing desire of the opposite sex. She helps us male readers identify and relive our own inward excitement and ecstasy that comes by way of a first sexual encounter. A much more explicit and venerable rendition of young love than such classic books as The Catcher In The Rye. Thanks Tawni for telling it like it really is.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Once you start you cannot put this book down. This haunting tale of a boy with troubles beyond his years in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I thought this book was dull at first, the first 2 chapters were hard to get into but after that I couldnt stop reading,,,it made we wonder what would happen next,,,and the ending is one no one will ever imagine!!! Great Book!!!...
    Quiltinfun06 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Extremely powerful, well written novel about abuse and it's ramifications. It was a very dark and heavy read for me one that I won't soon forget. It is not for everyone. I read this at the suggestion of a fried but would much prefer lighter reading.
    kazzablanca on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A very moving book, told in the first person. Not for the faint-hearted, that's for sure. The themes are extremely confrontational and there are occasional paragraphs that are so joltingly shocking that they are difficult to read.I found the main character endearing in his determination to persevere throughout a continual stream of tragedy that most people will never have to endure. Sadly, it's the realism and the knowledge that some lives are led in such a way, that makes this book so emotionally gripping.
    porchsitter55 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Disturbing tale of mental illness, incest, murder and betrayal. A young man is left to raise 3 sisters after his mother is convicted of murdering the father for abusing the children. But all is not as it seems in this twisting, turning story. Complex issues churn together in the caldron of the young man's psyche, driving him ever closer to madness. Intense book with strong psycho-sexual overtones.
    mmmasha on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Though extremely sad, it's a very clever and funny book. I read a review somewhere that said you're not going to like the main characters, but I really liked Harley and atleast two of his three little sisters. I found it hard to put down. Does have plenty topics not suitable for sensitive readers. And it's not a book with a fairytale ending, either. Nonetheless, it was a refreshing read.
    miyurose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    It was a pretty good book, but quite tragic. The whole story is tinged with a sense of foreboding.
    vhoeschler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I think of myself as being extremely wordy and even I can't think of enough horrible things to say about this book. The story is just angry and dirty and the characters are hateful and hopeless. I have no problem peppering my library with a little dysfunction every now and then, but I actually finished this book feeling like a worse person. The plot (if you can even say there is one) literally amounts to nothing. The only thing this author got right was picking out the cover image; a dismal, depressing road that leads to nowhere.
    zmagic69 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A good book very sad and very dark, but her follow up Coal Run is a better less depressing story
    mnlohman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Recommended by my library science student. An Oprah selection, so you know it's going to be a downer. Disfunctional family to the nth degree. 19 year old Harley is put in charge of raising his three sisters after mom is put in prison for shooting dad after years of physically and sexually abusing the kids.
    Monica71 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This is one of my favorite books. It tugs at the heart emotionally. The characters are real and raw and make you question right and wrong in a world where screwed up things happen so frequently.
    stomps on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I did not like this book at all. Everything about the novel was disturbing and the vast majority of the characters repulsed me. I felt sorry for the characters, but I could not bring myself to sympathize with them after one stupid action after another created more and more problems for them.
    whimsyblue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    One of my very favorite books of all time. A haunting and sad story, it changes you a little as you read.
    slkrbru on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book! The entire story kept my attention and so I was pleasantly suprised when the ending had a little twist - after it had been so excellent already! It was Tawni O'Dell's first novel and I am excited to read more of her works now.
    angelia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I don't know where to start with this book. The events still remain with me after days of reading the last page. Each character held there own. In fact, the characters were so well developed you felt you were among the fictional community. A few twisted surprises will cause you to rethink your judgments of the characters. Among the best!
    lington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Surely there is no book nearer to "Catcher in the Rye" in tone or protagonist since Salinger himself was publishing than O'Dell's "Back Roads." A story of murder, infatuation, and incest, this book covers all basis at the soap-opera speed-- sans the commercials. Somehow, O'Dell manages to drag the reader along at a believable enough pace. This book is not overdone or trite, despite the spectrum of emotions (and crimes) it covers and its similarities to Salinger's story. It is a convoluted love story, and an ode to the decay of mining-town Pennsylvania. And perhaps because of the book's stretch of plausibility, O'Dell proves herself a capable and proficient writer. She holds everything together with her beautifully honest and realistic prose, delivered directly from the head of a teenage boy trying to take care of his little sisters, get a decent paycheck, and lose his virginity. Funny and heart-breaking, this narration is painfully open for empathy. A book you have to put down just to process your emotional response and to say out loud to yourself how good it is, and certainly one that you will mourn when it's over. That is, until you read it again.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book. I never expected the ending and it was one twist after another. Top read!