Whistling Past the Graveyard

First I had to get by my mistake, and then I had to get by Susan Crandall’s before I could enjoy Whistling Past the Graveyard. Since the protagonist was nine, I assumed this was a children’s book. Not so. My mistake.

Rewrapping my head around an adult book, I returned to reading. Shortly, I ran into the maid Eula scrubbing the iron skillet used to make cornbread. Any Southern cook knows you never scrub an iron skillet. You only wipe out the excess grease since the more times one cooks cornbread, the better the seasoning of the skillet becomes. A new Southern bride would swap her new iron skillet for her grandmother’s old one in a heartbeat. Susan’s mistake.

Fortunately, I’m not known for putting a book aside without finishing it. The skillet is important to the story. Whether it has been scrubbed, not so much. Eula becomes both mentor and accomplice to nine-year-old Starla as she makes her way from Cayuga Springs through the length of Mississippi and on to Nashville where she expects to find refuge with her mother, the famous musician. (I would also have chosen a Native American name for the town from the tribes associated with Mississippi rather than one from New York, but this is not a deal breaker.)

The story starts with a Starla, a white child running away from home, being picked up along the road by a black maid who has a white baby with her – about as many complications as one could have in 1963. Then it gets worse, and Eula needs to run away herself. Difficult under any circumstances, the Jim Crow laws keep Eula and Starla finagling themselves out of one problem only to run into another that seems bigger. As the try to make sense of what life has dumped on them, each of them at times imparts wisdom to the other as they deal with their personal demons.

Susan Crandall’s characters are well-drawn and make you care – at least about the ones you don’t want to hit in the head with that skillet. The complications of the journey are believably set in a historic time. The reader can suspect the end in Nashville that Starla does not see, but that suspicion only adds to the tension of knowing that she is not heading to her all-problems-solved expectations. Where the baby came from is a puzzle from the start and not so easily guessed.

Cayuga Springs and scrubbed skillet aside, I kept coming back to read one more chapter before I put it down. I found an engaging story laced with complications brought on by the time and place and found myself helping them whistle past the graveyard.