Whistling Past the Graveyard ~ Susan Crandall

Date Completed: (7/25/2015)

Rating: 8/10

This was an excellent read. It took me a little while to get into, but once I reached the 20th page I could feel myself getting sucked in by the speed of action and the character’s stories. I would recommend it.

I think part of why I had trouble getting into this book is because it’s written from the perspective of a young white girl in the 1960’s south, and I don’t always like thinking about how much I have in common with people like her. Starla lives in Cayuga Springs, Mississippi, and she’s been raised to be racist without questioning it, much as we still are, but even more so because of the time period and her location. In the beginning of the story she talks down about people of color and thinks she can boss them around. From the beginning, I don’t have much hope that she will change. Fortunately, her adventure forces change upon her, and her youth helps her to learn the lessons better.

Starla runs away from home after her Mamie grounds her for breaking another kid Jimmy Sellar’s nose. She starts hitchhiking and winds up getting picked up by a woman of color, Eula. Eula has a baby with her, whom she calls James, and is driving home to her husband. When she arrives home, her husband Wallace is furious at her for bringing home two white children and asks her where she got them from. Starla learns the truth about baby James, that Eula picked him up outside of a white church that same night. Wallace eventually tries to drown Starla, Eula eventually hits him in the head with a frying pan, he dies, and they head to Nashville to find Starla’s mom.

They don’t get very far before a white man rams the truck with his car and breaks their axle. They manage to make it to a mechanic, but the mechanic doesn’t have the part and Eula decides to continue on in their truck, even though it could break apart at any moment. Starla learns from this experience that white people can be bad for no reason, and that black people get treated bad just from the color of their skin.

They make it just south of the next town when the truck breaks down for good. Starla has fallen sick, and Eula decides they need to find some medicine to help get Starla better. They walk the mile into town, carrying just baby James and leaving their luggage in the car. Fortunately for Eula the town, called the Bottoms, is a predominantly black neighborhood. She walks door to door asking for Aspirin, but many people turn them away when they see that Starla is white. Although Starla is delirious from being so sick, she is conscious enough to recognize that those people are turning her away because of the color of her skin, and she feels a little bit of what it’s like to have racial prejudices turned on her.

After about the fourth or fifth house, they meet Miss Cyrena, a school teacher who takes them in. Starla wakes up about a week later (her waking up is really funny: “I tried to sit up, but was weaker than a baby bird. My mouth felt cottony and my lips were all cracked and sore. I got myself up on my elbows, which was hard to do with spaghetti arms.”), feeling much better, to find that Eula’s found work in the town to make enough money to fix the truck to take her to Nashville. She learns how to bake and helps Eula bake pies. She also discovers that people of all colors can be helpful, as Miss Cyrena helps them a great deal and Eula helps her even though she certainly has no obligation. They have long discussions and Eula works on getting over the fact that she killed her husband.

They run into some trouble and have to take a Greyhound to Nashville, where they eventually meet Starla’s mom, who turns out to be a raging bitch. Her mother calls her father, who comes the very next day to pick her up. He yells at her mother and drives away with the three of them. Starla tells him the story of her adventure with Eula and baby James, and he takes her home to Mamie. When they arrive, Mamie is also a raging bitch, and Starla’s dad takes the three of them away again, to live in an apartment with him. The sheriff is talked to, they figure out that James is actually the baby of Starla’s best friend’s sister who is only 16 and in high school, the baby is taken away to be put up for adoption, the sister is sent away to live with a relative, and Starla questions the nature of her own birth. Her Dad turns out to be a perfect single parent, the sheriff lets Eula go free, and they all live together in an apartment with a nice old lady.

Starla starts out a bigoted racist, but she learns some things, and while she’s far from perfect, she decides she wants to listen to people of color and do her best to be active in her support by going to protests and such. I wish I were a little more active in my support of Civil Rights. I don’t do quite as much as I should.

Susan Crandall was born in Indiana. She’s a historical fiction novelist, and has written eleven books to date. Before becoming a writer she was a dental hygienist.

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