Friday, January 24, 2014


Title: Whistling Past The Graveyard
Author: Susan Crandall
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pages: 307

Starla Claudelle is the kind of narrative voice you never want to stop listening to. All of 9½ years old during the summer of 1963, this third-grade student finds herself coming to terms with the realities of being black and white in America’s Deep South.

Constantly suffering verbal and even physical abuse at the hands of Mamie, her grandmother, Starla feels totally unloved. Her Daddy works on an oil rig in the Gulf and her Momma ran away from home when Starla was three to become a country music singer. Starla is tired of the restrictions that she is placed under and of the grandmother who makes no attempt to hide her hatred for her or her ‘trashy’ mother. When Starla’s best attempts to conform to Mamie’s wishes fail and the threat of Reform school looms large, she impulsively decides to run away from her home in Mississippi and go to her mother in Nashville.

With nothing but the clothes on her back and the shoes on her feet, and no idea about where her Momma is in Nashville, she sets out anyway. Secure in the knowledge that her mother will solve all her problems and love her as she longs to be loved.

On the way, she is picked up by a young black woman named Eula, who has just picked up an abandoned white baby off the church steps. At Eula’s home, her enraged and abusive husband, Wallace, nearly kills Starla twice, but Eula hits him on the head to save Starla, and ends up killing him. Eula, the baby and Starla then make their way to Nashville where Starla hopes to help Eula and be a real family with her Daddy and Momma.

From them on begins their epic and adventurous journey as Starla realises the harsh and cruel realities of being black in the South. The trip gets dangerous, but Starla and Eula are each determined to protect the other and the baby. Even as they battle challenges they never imagined, Eula learns to stand up for herself and Starla learns that family ties are stronger than the ties of birth and that they are forged when people choose to love one another in spite of the odds.

Along the way, Starla, who has a knack for stretching the truth, discovers truths she never knew of, truths that force her to do her growing up in a hurry.

Together, these two people who are both hurting and damaged in their own ways, learn to reach out and look out for each other. They also learn that courage does not consist of not being afraid. True courage means whistling as you go past the graveyard, or, as Starla explains her Daddy’s teaching, something you do when you want to keep your mind off your most “worstest” fear.

As I read, I experienced many moments when my heart went out to little Starla. Inquisitive, feisty and spunky, with a mouth that speaks too much for her own good, she goes out of her way to help others, even when she does not like them, unmindful of the consequences. She is both unusually perceptive and endearingly naïve at the same time. She has a pleasant disregard for the niceties of grammar and is game for inventing any number of good stories, when the occasion demands it. Overly imaginative, she is also quite adept at eavesdropping when the adults won’t let her into their conversations. Having read books featuring Nancy Drew and Huck Finn, she is not averse to an adventure, and, boy, does she get it.

What I liked about the book was that it talked about the cruelty and humiliation that black people were subjected to and made a case for equal rights, without painting all people with the same brush. And so, we have good black people like Eula and Miss Cyrena, the teacher and civil rights activist, and bad black people like Wallace. We have good white people like Starla and her Daddy and bad white people like the driver who deliberately tries to run Eula’s beat-up truck off the road.

The language used reflects the lingo of the American South. It is a treat to read, especially Eula’s halting speech and Starla’s over-exuberant voice.

Bit by bit, Crandall reveals her lead character to us, and the revelation is a delight. With her “defiant face” and flaming red hair, her personality shines through and imbues the book with charm. Her sense of humour brings a smile to our faces. When Mamie warns Starla against a certain kind of behaviour, and tells her that they had agreed on it, the kid thinks to herself, “We hadn’t agreed. Mamie agreed. I just stopped disagreeing.

At another time, she likens Mamie’s house to Reform school. “All chores and punishment and wadded up disappointment – just without the locked doors.

This is one character that is going to stay with you, long after you put the book down.

(I received a Kindle version of this book from NetGalley.)

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