Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Wordcraft -- Dark family secrets twist and turn

Johnnie Come Lately

by Kathleen M. Rodgers
Kathleen M. Rodgers
Outwardly, Dale and Johnnie Kitchen are the picture of the perfect family: middle-class up and comers still in love after more than twenty years of marriage, they’re both as good looking as when they were college sweethearts, with a beautiful house (renovated by Dale himself) and three children whose worst sin (so far) is a single bout of underage drinking. Inwardly though, they harbor a multitude of dark and sometimes deadly secrets. And in Johnnie Come Lately, the second novel from North Texas author Kathleen M. Rodgers, she digs deep to shed light on the darkness at the heart of Dale and Johnnie’s apparently perfect lives.

“At least we know you’re not dead,” Johnnie writes to her long-lost mother in one of the many journal entries that punctuate the narrative. “Ghosts don’t call home from a payphone.”

But what drove Johnnie’s unwed mother to disappear from her daughter’s life the day of Johnnie’s marriage? Who was the father whose death a callous relative revealed so brutally at one more than usually dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner? And what is the real story behind the drowning of the uncle Johnnie never knew, the uncle whose name she carries?

“Her mama’s searing words flashed through her mind,” is Johnnie's remembrance of the last day she saw her mother. “Johnnie Girl, every time I look in your face, I cringe. I never should’ve let Poppy name you after my dead brother.”

Why, we wonder, why?

Rodgers reveals the answers, but with the grace of a consummate storyteller, she saves the hardest truths for last.

There are newer griefs as well: Johnnie’s brief extramarital fling, middle-child Cade’s sudden decision to abandon plans for college in favor of enlistment in the Iraq war, Johnnie’s continuing struggle against the bulimia that nearly killed her.

A long-time magazine writer, Rodgers has recounted her personal struggle against bulimia in numerous publications. The descriptions of her character Johnnie Kitchen’s struggle against the deadly eating disorder have the ring of heartbreaking truth, but are told with grace and compassion.

It’s tempting to see this novel as a self-portrait of Rodgers, who has put so much of herself and her milieu into it: the little Texas town of Portion, with its quaint main street patterned after the equally small and quaint North Texas suburb of Grapevine; Rodgers’ own battle against bulimia; the anguish of her son’s wartime enlistment.
I’ve known Rodgers for the past several years, since our initial meeting at the Dallas Writers Garrett, and then learning that we’d both participated in Southern Methodist University’s creative writing program, although in different years. Rodgers is not Johnnie, but she’s made a place for Johnnie in the hearts of her readers.

Rodgers’ Johnnie Come Lately made its debut last Saturday, February 7, at the Southlake, Texas, Barnes and Noble. It and the new edition of her first novel, The Final Salute, are shelved under “new fiction” at the Southlake B&N, and are available at

For more about Rodgers and her writing, including her next novel, see www.kathleenMRodgers.com/.


  1. Dear Melissa,

    Your observations about Johnnie Come Lately are right on target! You've been there almost from the beginning as I worked to take this second novel from a dream to reality. Thank you for this exceptional review, and for making space on your wonderful blog for Johnnie. We are honored. :)

    And thanks for being part of the celebration at Barnes & Noble last Saturday. The day was truly magical.


  2. Outstanding Melissa. I am hoping to be able to do the same for your novel, Tomb of Khan, in the near future! You are a gem among us all. To see you Saturday, along with Drema Brekheimer and Johnnie Dale Massey Norris, was a true gift. Thanks for coming and for being YOU.

    1. Thanks to both Kathleen & Jeanie for inviting me to Kathleen's book launch -- and for your friendship.