Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

It seems like there have been a lot of books in the past few years addressing the racially charged sixties. And in many of them black women work for white families and care for white children. Susan Crandall's new novel, Whistling Past the Graveyard, is both similar to and very different from these other books and will likely draw comparisons to the biggest names in the past few years. But it is its own story and an engaging one at that.

It's 1963 in Mississippi and nine year old Starla Claudelle is a precocious, curious, and spunky child. She lives with her grandmother, Mamie, because her own mother took off for Nashville to sing when Starla was small and her father works offshore on an oil rig to support his mother and his daughter. Mamie is a strict and overly harsh guardian, punishing the child for every transgression and never showing her positive attention or love, resenting having to raise her granddaughter. Starla knows that Mamie treats her the way she does because she wants to keep Starla from turning out like her no-good, flighty mother, not that Starla accepts her grandmother's judgment of her mother's character. And so when Starla is unjustly grounded from the local Fourth of July parade because of misbehavior, it is the last straw for her. She goes anyway. When she's seen there, rather than face her grandmother's wrath over her defiance, she makes the spur of the moment decision to run away to find her mother.

Trudging down the road in the staggering heat, she is ultimately picked up by a black woman returning home from delivering pies in town. But Eula is not alone; there's a bundled baby on the floor of her truck, a baby who can't possibly belong to Eula because this baby is white. It turns out that Eula has scooped baby James up from the church steps where she saw another black maid deposit him. Promising that she'll get Starla to her momma in Nashville another day, she takes both Starla and the baby to her home deep in woods, where they have to face Eula's husband, the scary and violent Wallace. After a terrible confrontation with him, Eula flees with Starla and baby James on a weeks long road trip to Nashville. And along the way Starla sees firsthand the tenseness, hatred, and injustices of the time, the fear and effects of the burgeoning civil rights movement, but also the innate goodness of some people.

Telling the story from Starla's innocent, love-starved perspective made the sadness and loneliness of both Starla and Eula's lives that much more affecting. And Crandall has done a very good job writing a child's eye view of the times, capturing her innocence and her confusion at the injustice she sees around her. Both Starla and Eula are wonderful, authentic, and well-written characters. The history of the times weaves through the story but doesn't overwhelm it, keeping it at the level that a child Starla's age would be aware of and understand given the time and place of her upbringing. The plot moves along at a good pace and the reader is anxious to see what will happen next. An entertaining read about the resilience of people's hearts, weathering disappointment, and forging a family out of the people who love you rather than just the people who share your blood, you'll fall in love with Starla and ache for Eula in all her yawning sadness. Emotional and thought provoking, this is truly a delightful novel that will keep you hoping for the right outcome for both Starla and Eula until the turn of the very last page.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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