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Back Roads Reader’s Guide

By Tawni O’Dell

Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell


Questions and Topics for Discussion

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.



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.


  • 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?
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