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A Review of Whistling Past The Graveyard by Susan Crandall
Two days. That’s all it took for me to finish reading Whistling Past The Graveyard by Susan Crandall. I will admit, I wasn’t thrilled with the cover. I have a thing about carnivals. It took me a while to get around to reading it, and I’m kicking myself for waiting. I think I’m going to buy the rest of Ms. Crandall’s books. Yes, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
From Ms. Crandall’s website here’s the synopsis:
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.
That’s the Readers Digest version.
This book was set in 1960’s Mississippi, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. It deals with racial tensions, domestic violence, family and small town living.
What I loved most about this book was the voice. It was written in pseudo-dialect from Starla’s point of view. We see her confusion and struggle over understanding the way society worked back then. She learns about children born out of wedlock, mothers not wanting children, the NAACP, and the deep cultural divide between African Americans and White people at that time. She’s young, precocious, has a hot temper and is a tad bit manipulative. In fact, Starla likes to lie.
But, she also likes to stand up for what’s right. This kid stood up against a bully – not once but twice.
Starla wants her family: Her momma from Nashville and her Daddy at the oil rig to be together. She wants to get away from her Mamie (her dad’s mother – that’s just a name Starla knows her by) because she’s really strict. One day, Starla hits a bully and breaks his nose. Then his mom comes out and calls Starla’s mother trash. Starla doesn’t like it, punches her, and then runs away because she’s afraid her Mamie will send her to reform school.
I also loved that this book tackled domestic violence. When Starla runs away she meets Eula, an African-American woman with a white baby in the car seat. Eula is abused by her husband, who is an alcoholic. He’s mean too, but we see this sweet woman not able to see that her husband is- a jerk until he threatens the one thing she wants – a family. Eula fights for her new “family” – Starla and James and wins. (Trust me, it’s so much better, but I am not going to tell you because I refuse to spoil this).
Starla, Eula and Baby James (the white baby) find themselves in Jackson, Mississippi. Starla learns about racism. The African-American people will not take her in because they are afraid of trouble from the white people. The White people won’t help her because Starla will not leave Eula. Then, one nice lady, an African-American school teacher takes in Starla and Eula. There, Starla learns about the domestic violence and the deep racial tensions.
This books strength, by far, is the voice and innocence of Starla. This really brought me into the book. The setting of the story was well defined. I wish there was just a touch of more scenery description but that’s just me. Seriously, that’s the only bad thing I have to say about this book. There really is nothing I can say that’s negative other than that, because this book is so well written.
I really loved that this book was ultimately a coming of age story. I’m not a YA fan, but this is one of those books that could go err on the YA side or the adult reading side. I believe it was marketed toward the adult side simply because of the domestic abuse and the racial tensions.
It also did something that I felt is very important especially in this day and age. Crandell did something really significant by putting this in the Civil Rights setting. She made it clear that not all African-American people are bad, and not all white people are bad. It’s the heart of people that must be judged. This is done by Starla, very wrongly thinking at first, that Eula’s husband had to listen to her because she was white. She thought the African-American community had to be nice to her because she was white.
I’ll give you a second, dear reader, to let that sink in. Remember the setting though…
But as she got to know Eula as a person she loved Eula – but not as an African – American. She loved Eula, the person, and was willing to do anything for her. And Eula, loved Starla, not as a white sassy punk kid, but as a person.
And that’s what it ultimately boiled down to for me. This book is about seeing the heart of people and being brave enough to be willing to see the heart of people.
Would I recommend this book? YES. Dear Lord, I already have recommended it to many people. It’s a powerful book with a powerful story. If you haven’t read it – get to the bookstore and buy it, the library to check it out, borrow it, anything. This book was such a pleasure to read and I think everyone will enjoy it.