Whistling Past the Graveyard starts off familiarly enough: a young, white heroine takes up with an older, wiser black heroine and they go on a journey (literal or figurative) with an uncertain destination. It's the premise of two fairly recent best-sellers, The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, both of which have loomed large in the public consciousness thanks first to their excellence, and second to their big-studio movie adaptations. Like those two novels, Whistling Past the Graveyard also takes place in the Deep South in the 1960s — 1963, to be exact — all of which make this book appear to be a comfortable but not exactly surprising summertime novel.
But it turns out that there are plenty of surprises to be had in this story of a nine-year-old white girl who runs away from home, joining up with a young black woman with a white baby in tow. After I read just a few pages, all thoughts of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help had flown out of my head, leaving me with a story that was grittier, more intense, and honest in a way that so much literary fiction isn't. There's no polished sheen to Whistling Past the Graveyard, and that's one of the things that makes it such a great read.
The story is told from the point-of-view of Starla, a fiery nine-year-old redhead who lives with her uncaring grandmother in Mississippi. Starla's daddy works on an oil rig, and her momma left the family to be a country singer in Nashville when Starla was very young. The little girl yearns to be with her mother, so she takes off one day to go to Nashville.
Along the way, she meets Eula, a timid, gentle-hearted woman who's taking home an abandoned white baby. Worried about young Starla hitchhiking alone, Eula asks her to hop in her truck so they can go to Eula's house for the night and continue driving in the morning. And that's where their journey begins, bringing them face-to-face not only with racism, violence, and murder, but also great kindness and seemingly bottomless compassion.
What's interesting about the way this story is told is that everything we see is filtered through Starla. She's at an age when she can still cling to the childish fantasies that have sustained her since her mother left — namely, that she'll find her mother in Nashville and that she'll be a warm, loving parent, even though she hasn't made any attempts to see Starla since she left several years earlier. But she also can see and question the complexities around her, like the way she and Eula are treated differently in public places, and the deep, almost desperate need to care for a child that Eula seems to have. Starla's commentary is fresh and funny enough to make the book highly entertaining, and perceptive enough to give us a clear view of the bleakness that the two characters often stumble into.
A good deal of those dark undertones come from Eula, who has a horribly abusive husband and also suffered abuse as a young girl. She is about as loving and maternal as a person can be, yet she carries a deep, persistent fear that Starla quickly recognizes but doesn't totally understand. The novel's darkest moment comes when Eula's husband chases after Starla, who's run away from the house, and catches her. After that point, it's clear that Crandall won't be pulling any punches on her two protagonists.
That is not to say that this is a dark story. More than anything, it's a story about love, especially maternal love, and it's got plenty of humor and colorful characters to keep the action moving. And though Starla and Eula each suffer their own share of heartbreak, things do come out all right in the end. And that's lucky for us readers — by the end of this book, you'll feel such affection for these two that anything less would just be cruel.
Susan Crandall will speak and sign copies of her book at Blue Bicycle Books on Sun. July 21 from 2-4 p.m. Read our Q&A with Crandall online.