Whistling Past the Graveyard

Written by Susan Crandall
Review by Ellen Keith

Starla Claudelle is a handful. The nine-year-old lives with her grandmother, a humorless woman, in small-town Mississippi in 1963. Her mother left them for a recording career in Nashville, and her father works on an oil rig to support her. Naturally, Starla is a trial to her grandmother Mamie, who tries to rename her Jane and punishes her for punching a neighborhood bully. Under these conditions, what else is a fearless tomboy to do but take to the road, hoping to find her mother, who by now must be a star?

This is a wonderful road trip of a book. Starla gets a ride from Eula, a sweet, Christian, black woman who has “found” a white baby. In 1963 Mississippi, this is a recipe for disaster, which Eula’s angry husband Wallace sees more clearly than Eula. Starla, Eula, and baby James hit the road for Nashville, sans Wallace. Starla’s ideas about race are challenged when the tables are turned and she’s the only white person in a black neighborhood where they are given aid by Miss Cyrena, a wise schoolteacher. On the surface this scenario could reek of cliché, but Starla and Eula are original characters. Their responses to their circumstances spring from who they are rather than a rote set of behaviors imposed upon them. Although it’s inevitable that Starla returns home, her homecoming doesn’t mean a return to the status quo. This is unabashedly a happy ending, often a rarity for books set in the Civil Rights-era South. I hope Crandall follows up with Starla when she is about ten years older. Surely she’d have some original observations on the women’s rights movement of the 1970s.