Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (St. Martin’s Press; 336 pages; $24.99).
William Shakespeare wrote that the course of true love never did run smooth, and nowhere is that truer than in Julie Kibler’s sobering, yet heartening debut Calling Me Home. Kibler drew inspiration for her tale after learning her grandmother had fallen in love with an African American when she was a young woman. At the time, though, any romantic connection between the two was unfeasible. A story idea was thus born.
Employing a dual narrative format, Kibler sets Calling Me Home in both present-day Texas and in pre-World War II Kentucky, introducing us to two extraordinary women: eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister, an elderly white lady and thirty-something Dorrie Curtis, a single black mother of two.
Isabelle has a huge favor to ask of Dorrie, something so big she cannot ask anyone else. She has to go to a funeral in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she has to leave tomorrow. Isabelle wants Dorrie to drive her there.
Why does Isabelle ask Dorrie? What kind of connection can an elderly white woman and a young black female have? It’s simple, really. Dorrie is Isabelle’s hairdresser.
If you are a woman, then you immediately understand the intimate relationship between a woman and her beautician. There is a connection between the two women that belies age and race. Isabelle and Dorrie have bonded over hair and have become friends. But there are things both women have chosen not to tell the other.
Dorrie agrees to drive Isabelle to the funeral, although Isabelle refuses to say who died or how she is connected to the deceased. For Dorrie, it’s a bit of a mystery. But she does not pry. She knows instinctively that Isabelle will reveal everything when she is good and ready.
When the two women set off, Kibler begins her second story arc. Isabelle confides to Dorrie that she fell in love with Robert Prewitt when she was a teenager (Isabelle is only loosely based on Kibler’s own grandmother). Robert wanted to be a doctor; he was the son of her family’s housekeeper and was African American.
Because this is 1939 Kentucky, the reader knows this is a doomed romance. Especially in a “sundown” town like Shalerville where blacks were not allowed after dark. Such places really existed. It was quite alright for African-American maids, chauffeurs, and workers to be in Shalerville during the day, but, come sundown, they had to vacate the area or face the consequences.
Kibler’s decision to set part of the story in this sundown town has a sobering effect on the reader, or at least it did on me. I worried for Robert and for Isabelle, but especially for Robert’s safety in such a dark, chilling and painful place.
As Isabelle narrates her part of the story, Kibler illustrates the sheer ugliness of the world in which Isabelle lives. It’s full of small minds and discrimination so common at the time. Robert and Isabelle know how difficult life will be for them but they are in love and determined. They run away together, but the course of true love never does go smoothly, does it? And Robert and Isabelle are no exception.
As Isabelle conveys her story to Dorrie, the young black mother begins confiding to Isabelle. Dorrie likes Teague, a handsome, successful black man, but he just seems too perfect—something she is not. After her divorce, Dorrie is hesitant about bringing a new man into her life and into the lives of her children: a sweet young daughter and a son who is a senior in high school. Her son and his future constantly worry Dorrie, who is uncertain if she needs the added concern of a new relationship. Listening to Isabelle’s story, though, Dorrie learns something profound about life and about love.
A bond that first formed over hair expands further. For Isabelle and Dorrie, age and color matter not; they are insignificant things.
Calling Me Home is a courageous tale because Kibler holds nothing back. Just a few weeks into President Barack Obama’s second term in office, you hear so often how we live in a “post-racial” society. But is that actually true? When Dorrie and Isabelle stop to eat at a restaurant on their trip, a white man and woman look curiously at them. The man soon turns rude and openly stares at them. In a stage whisper, he wonders why a white lady is with a black woman.
If the romance between Isabelle and Robert highlights race in the American past, then this scene is an eye-opening look at race in the American present. Kibler shows us how far we’ve come in this country; however, she also shows us how far we still have to go.
Calling Me Home is both a solemn and stirringly emotional novel that takes us deep into a woman’s heart and backward into one country’s harsh past. Kibler’s story of love, loss, family, faith, and friendship hearken to the stuff of life. In the end, Calling Me Home is a surprising novel. Because Kibler is always patient and easy on the foreshadowing, the conclusion is an ending that will surely amaze readers, just as it did me.
We should never dwell on our differences and focus instead on the ways we are the same. That’s what I learned from Calling Me Home. Kibler will break your heart in this tale, but she will also put it back together again.
Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home is the She Reads February Book Club Selection. You can discuss the book and enter to win one of ten copies and read the fabulous reviews of members. The book comes out February 12. Check back here on my blog February 12 for my interview with Kibler. It’s going to be amazing!