When my husband and I lived in Virginia, I had my dream come true: I got a full time job at Barnes and Noble. My husband is a sailor in the USN, so I was only able to keep that job for a year. After leaving, a few of us fellow bookies decided to keep in touch and, just recently, decided to start a book club. Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall was the first book of the Literary Ladies book club, and it did not disappoint!
The Synopsis from Goodreads
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.
This was probably one of the few books I’ve read this year that I absolutely could not put down! We had an anonymous poll for which book we’d read this March, and I’ll admit: I didn’t vote for this one. I am so very glad it won because this was such a beautiful story, and I fell in love with the characters.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Starla Jane Claudelle – Firstly, her name is just the best name I have ever heard for a character without it being unbelievable. I can just picture a poor, pregnant, 17-year-old Southern girl with big dreams realize she’s having a baby girl and think the best name she could give would be Starla. She is a wonderful little ball of fire who hates backing down from a fight, and always ends up seeing right into the core of everyone she meets. My mother’s cousin has a daughter who is so similar to Starla (her name is Ireland, so they have that “different-name” in common, too!), it may have something to do with why I absolutely adored her.
Eula – To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of Eula’s at first. I thought she was a little crazy, what with having a random white baby in the car and then her more-than-abusive husband. I did not know what the story was going to hold for Eula. As soon as that pan hit Wallace’s head, I knew I was going to like this woman. She did for Starla what no other adult had: she protected her. Starla’s father was off working, her mother was gone, and her grandmother was one of the people she needed to be protected from; Starla had to begin protecting herself at a young age. Even when Eula came into her life, Starla was busy protecting Eula for a good while. Once Eula was able to finally come into herself, she was able to show Starla the same love and protection Starla had been showing her. (And honestly, I really wanted Eula to tell Lulu off).
The Characters Met Along the Way – From Mrs. Cyrena to the Jenkins Brothers to the boy Starla met at the fair, the cast of Whistling Past the Graveyard was just perfect. Each character was essential to the story, and nobody felt awkwardly crammed in or just forgotten. Mrs. Cyrena was another favorite of mine, simply because of her compassion for others. When Starla was sick and Eula had $4 to her name, Mrs. Cyrena took them in and allowed these three strangers (including baby James) into her home, knowing how much trouble they could get in for having two white children in their home. When Eula & Mrs. Cyrena decided to allow Starla to go to the carnival, I think I fell in love right then. Poor Starla never had anyone care about her happiness before, and here are two women who have known her for less than a month and could already see the goodness in her. Even the Jenkins brothers were well-written characters. We all have “those people” in town; the white trash, racist, hillbilly folk that just make you ashamed of being from the same town as them. People who are mean just because they can be. Isn’t it funny how this book was set in the 1960s, 50 years ago, and we still have the same problems?
Every Character Grew – The amount of character development in this book was almost too much for my emotional state. When Starla’s father finally does come save her (from her awful egg donor of a mother), the amount of love he has for his daughter really shines through. It’s the first time we’re really introduced to him, but I could see then that the only reason he was not home with her was because he believed he was doing the right thing by having his mother (Mamie) raise Starla. He then quits his job, finds an apartment for them both and begins to raise her on his “own” (own in quotations because Eula did stick around, of course). Eula’s own character growth was glorious and lovely and all I wanted was for her to live happily ever after and I’m glad that she kind of did.
Disliked Didn’t Love
Another “Dead Beat” Mom – So many books I’ve read lately have single fathers, with the mother either dying from childbirth, leaving the daughter, or just disappearing completely. While I am all for being different and breaking the mold, we do realize that the majority of single-parent families have the mother as the head of household, right? Women mainly win custody cases because they show up and actually want the custody. When men do show up and try to get custody, most of the times they do. It would just be nice to have a book where the mother and daughter had a coming-together of sorts. We women have enough nonsense to worry about without having to worry about books making us out to be creatures who will flee at the mere sight of responsibility.
If you’re looking for your next good read, I highly recommend this be it! I swear, you will not regret reading this book!