Monday, December 1, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

Another book I read during my holiday reading marathon is one recommended to me by a friend: Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall. Set in Mississippi in 1963, I’m afraid this also counts as a historical novel since 1963 was more than 50 years ago.

The protagonist is a particularly spunky nine-year-old girl named Starla. The author does a very nice job of capturing the voice of a girl who is at once too-knowing for her years and yet who still views the world with a degree of magical thinking. Starla lives with her grandmother, Mamie. Her mother, Lulu, has abandoned her, running off to Nashville with dreams of becoming a star. Her father works on an oil rig to support her, sending money home and visiting infrequently. Mamie is a harsh taskmaster. Starla, a rather free-spirited child, is stifled by life in her grandmother’s home. She is constantly belittled, punished for minor infractions, and told how worthless she is. (Mamie fears Starla will turn out like Lulu.) Starla is convinced that if she could only be with her mother, things would be different.

So, one day, having committed a final unpardonable fit of rebellion, Starla runs away from home, determined to reach Nashville. Walking alone along a back country road, she is picked up by a black woman, Eula, who offers her a ride. Starla discovers there is someone else in the truck as well–a baby–a white baby.

This is Mississippi in 1963. A black woman has no business driving around with two white children, one a baby and one a runaway. They are in trouble from the get-go and things go from bad to worse. Starla’s impulsive nature, generally with good intentions but sometimes just nine-year-old poor judgment, doesn’t help matters. Eula always means well, but the deck is stacked against her.

Their road trip demonstrates both the worst in people and sometimes the best. This includes Starla. Eventually, they do reach Nashville, where Starla has one more painful lesson to learn.

Whistling Past the Graveyard is an excellent book, a well-written coming-of-age story . It’s an emotionally compelling example of the genre of a child coming to grips with racial injustice and learning the true meaning of family. At times the situations seem a bit over-the-top, piled together as they are in road-trip-adventure fashion, but it does make for a harrowing read and you’ll be rooting for Starla and Eula to reach safety.

This is my 25th historical novel, so I have completed the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry with December to spare. I’ll still keep a running tab if I add another couple books in December and do my wrap-up post a little later.

Hurray! One challenge completed!