8 OUT OF 10
This wasn’t a book that I loved while I was reading it, or even right after I finished it. It took a couple of weeks before I could come back and say, yes, this is absolutely a quality work of fiction. Worth rereading sometime? Maybe not, but I certainly have no qualms recommending it to others.
Whistling Past the Graveyard takes its title from a somewhat outdated and unused (at least in my neck of the woods) idiom, essentially meaning to pretend to be brave when you’re afraid or making noise to keep the ghosts away. At least, that’s how little Starla defines it.
It’s 1963, and Starla Claudelle is a precocious redhead and the bane of her Mamie’s existence. With her mother off in Nashville “bein’ a famous singer” and her father working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Starla has no choice but to live with her father’s strict mother, Mamie, in Cayuga Springs, Mississippi. It’s a very volatile time, and prejudices and hatred are boiling just under the surface.
After defying her grandmother and getting caught, Starla runs away, figuring her mother–who she barely remembers–would love her like Mamie never did. On the nearly deserted dirt road heading out of town, Starla is offered a ride by Eula, a young black woman driving with a white baby in her truck’s front seat.
In the journey from Cayuga Springs, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, Eula and Starla face the depth and breadth of racism and violence during the Civil Rights Movement, but also discover that family isn’t dictated by blood–or even the color of your skin.
I haven’t known any nine-year-olds since I was one, so the fact that the narrator of this book is that young took some getting used to. Her voice was clear and steady throughout, and reading her perspective of race issues was interesting and delightfully naive. Some of Starla’s thoughts bordered on ridiculous, like when she believed she was strong enough to push a truck out a muddy ditch, talked about her “red rage,” or thought she was going to be sent to prison if she went back to Mamie. But she’s nine–that’s normal, right?
Like I said, I haven’t experienced a nine-year-old in more than twenty years. I gave Crandall the benefit of the doubt.
It took a really long time before I respected Eula as a rounded character; the first few chapters, especially when she was around her husband Wallace, she came across almost as a caricature–she was loving and sweet and submissive to everyone, whatever color. It wasn’t until Starla fell ill and Eula had to take charge of her and the baby and find them a place to stay that she really started to come off the page. And when we find out why she’s so sweet and submissive, it’s then that we realize, she really couldn’t have been any other way.
Crandall has some really wonderful turns of phrase; when Wallace dragged Eula and Starla into the house, “Eula’s dragging feet caught the rug in the living room. It rolled up like a butter curl behind us.” The simplicity–and the vividness–of that image stuck with me long after I read those lines and I kept turning back to it, reveling how simple words could make such an impression. Similarly: “She stood in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen with her arms crossed and a lipstick-red frown on her face. Her pocketbook, white like her shoes, hung from one arm.” Now, doesn’t that just conjure up a white Southern society lady in the mid-60s? …Or is it just me?
Other reviews have suggested this is to be a classic the same as To Kill a Mockingbird; I don’t know about that. The end is a little predictable, but overall this novel is beautifully written and surprisingly deep. This is Crandall’s 10th book; I now have go investigate the first nine.