The themes of growing up, initiation, and identity are paramount in Alther's work, and Jude's odyssey from girlhood to womanhood encompasses the embattled childhood of a tomboy raised by an adored yet somewhat preoccupied part-Cherokee father and a black housekeeper. She and her best friends, Molly and Sandy, do battle with the forces of conventional Southern womanhood and macho manhood until, undone by puberty, Molly dies in a car wreck instigated by her boyfriend Ace Kilgore, their childhood bete noire. Although Jude learns to mask her tomboy identity and her unconventionality in small-town high school forms, she remains haunted by her differentness until her arrival at graduate school in New York, where she is reunited with, and then loses, Sandy, and meets the older woman poet Anna, who becomes her doomed lover.
Sex and death are always found close together for Jude. Her mother died in childbirth when Jude was very young and all three of her lovers — Molly, Sandy, and Anna — die in violent and partially self-inflicted ways. Jude herself suffers a symbolic death in the underground catacombs of Paris, where in a dream the dead give her permission to live.
Childhood and the family are important themes in Alther's fiction, intensified by the family's imperative to bring in the alien, as when Jude's Yankee mother marries her part-Cherokee, Southern father — her grandparents called him "the hillbilly" — and the black housekeeper...
(The entire section is 455 words.)