Review: Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

Title: Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall
Publisher: Gallery Books
Genre: Historical (1960s), Fiction
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

From an award-winning author comes a wise and tender coming-of-age story about a nine-year-old girl who runs away from her Mississippi home in 1963, befriends a lonely woman suffering loss and abuse, and embarks on a life-changing roadtrip.

The summer of 1963 begins like any other for nine-year-old Starla Claudelle. Born to teenage parents in Mississippi, Starla is being raised by a strict paternal grandmother, Mamie, whose worst fear is that Starla will turn out like her mother. Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three, but is convinced that her mother will keep her promise to take Starla and her daddy to Nashville, where her mother hopes to become a famous singer—and that one day her family will be whole and perfect.

When Starla is grounded on the Fourth of July, she sneaks out to see the parade. After getting caught, Starla’s fear that Mamie will make good on her threats and send her to reform school cause her to panic and run away from home. Once out in the country, Starla is offered a ride by a black woman, Eula, who is traveling with a white baby. She happily accepts a ride, with the ultimate goal of reaching her mother in Nashville.

As the two unlikely companions make their long and sometimes dangerous journey, Starla’s eyes are opened to the harsh realities of 1963 southern segregation. Through talks with Eula, reconnecting with her parents, and encountering a series of surprising misadventures, Starla learns to let go of long-held dreams and realizes family is forged from those who will sacrifice all for you, no matter if bound by blood or by the heart.

The Review:

Set in the racially charged south, Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard is a beautifully written, thought-provoking coming of age story. When nine year old Starla Claudelle runs away from home to find her estranged mother, her life is irrevocably changed by Eula, the young black woman who offers her a ride. On their journey from Mississippi to Nashville, this unlikely duo bond as they fight for their lives and experience firsthand the tumultuous early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

The narrator of Whistling Past the Graveyard, Starla, is a precocious and impulsive child with an unfortunate tendency to act and speak without thinking. With her dad working on oil rigs in the Gulf, Starla lives with her grandmother Mamie. Starla is headstrong and stubborn and she spends most of her day trying to keep on Mamie’s good side. Mamie has set ideas of how a young woman should behave and sadly, Starla never lives up to her high standards and Mamie often punishes Starla by taking away her privileges. When her latest antics end with a threat to send her to reform school, Starla rashly runs away to live with the mother who abandoned her years before.

Starla’s perceptions of the world are filtered by her limited life experiences and Mamie’s opinions. In the beginning, her relationship with Eula reflects the typical racial prejudices that permeated the South in 1963. Starla is compassionate and kind-hearted, but until she meets Eula, she has no reason to question the rightness or wrongness of racial segregation. The people they meet and their shared experiences prove to be quite eye-opening for Starla and she quickly forms a different viewpoint of the racial divide that separates her from Eula.

Whistling Past the Graveyard is a captivating novel with depth and substance. The characters are vibrant, well-developed and compelling. The story is rich with historical detail and Susan Crandall accurately depicts the harsh realities of racial tensions that existed in the 60s.

Ultimately uplifting, Whistling Past the Graveyard is an insightful and heartwarming tale of family, love and friendship that I highly recommend.

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