Friday, July 19, 2013

Whistling Past the Graveyard

On vacation I finished the book I packed so quickly that I had to visit Book World in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to pick up another. Whistling Past the Graveyard had been on my "To Read" list for a while, so I grabbed it. It's funny how the universe presents a person with connections!

Told from 9 year old Starla Claudelle's perspective, Whistling Past the Graveyard is a coming-of-age story set in Cayuga Springs, Mississippi in the summer of 1963. Starla lives with her paternal grandmother because her mother ran off to Nashville in hopes of a singing career while her father works on an off-shore oil rig. Life with Mamie is tough on a feisty 9 year old girl with a mind of her own! Starla manages to get herself on "restriction" (or "grounded" to some of us) just as her beloved Fourth of July festivities are set to take place. She decides to sneak out and enjoy what she can anyway. When she gets caught, Starla is panic-stricken that Mamie will make good on threats to send her off to reform school so she runs away.

Walking the road leaving town and heading to Nashville, Starla is offered a ride by Eula, a black woman on her way home from work in town. When Starla accepts, she is in for more of a ride than she bargained for!

Eula has taken a white baby she calls James who she plans to raise as her own. (In this I found the tie-in to Isabel Sherbourne in The Light Between Oceans!) She is married to an abusive man who turns murderous at the idea of Eula bringing home two white kids.

What ensues is the story of Starla and Eula's journey of discovery on their way to Nashville and eventually back home to Cayuga Springs, Mississippi. The pair explore the realities of segregation, abuse, divorce, teen pregnancy, empowerment, and the fact that sometimes family has less to do with blood connections than it does with those who love and support you.

I'm not sure I agree with the blurbs I read that suggested Whistling Past the Graveyard is destined to become the next To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee's novel is my favorite book and I don't think Crandall's novel is quite on the same level for me. It is, however, a very good read full of interesting and realistic characters. It feels like a very authentic portrayal of the period and place in which it is set. I thought it was cute how Starla kept referring to the racial issues in terms of "regular bears" and "polar bears." Crandall does not sugar coat the racial tensions which existed, however, and Starla is allowed to contemplate the sometimes horrific treatment of African Americans in the south.

I'm glad I read this novel. If you get the chance, I hope you'll read it!

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