It’s an irony that young people mostly see things in black and white, Dorrie. All or nothing. Sometimes, in spite of their enthusiasm for embracing change, it takes years of experience before they truly see the whole picture. Still, I don’t believe my mother ever really learned how to love me properly. Her basic needs were scarcely met as a child, and all she could do as an adult was clutch at the status she believed would save her. I really think it all boiled down to fear. She was so worried about what the people around us would think, she forgot about . . . me.
So says the elderly Miss Isabelle to her friend and hairdresser, Dorrie, who has agreed to drive Miss Isabelle from their hometown in Texas to “Cincy” so she can attend a mysterious funeral.
On the road trip Miss Isabelle recounts her late teen years which center on her growing love for Robert, the son of her parents’ Negro housekeeper. She first ‘notices’ him when he rescues her from being raped in an alley one night when she sneaks away to a nightclub in the nearby city. She has known him all her life, it turns out, as he works for her family and is tutored by her doctor father. But now she begins to see how different he is from all the other boys and young men she knows, who are mostly tongue-tied and loutish.
During the ride Miss Isabelle tells Dorrie of her growing love for Robert, and the obstacles to it, which are many, in a Southern town in the 1940’s; a town that has signs posted warning coloreds to be out of town by sundown (yes, those sundown towns did actually exist, as hard as it is to believe now).Young Isabelle appears almost blithely unaware of the danger her infatuation for Robert could spell for him.
Meanwhile, in the present, Dorrie, a woman used to taking care of herself, but not above wanting or appreciating help, struggles to sort out her teenaged son’s issues, and her own deep-seated mistrust of men. Having been through one bad relationship with the father of her two children, she now needs to decide if she should trust a new man, who is depicted as a keeper—but she’s certain there’s a worm in the apple somewhere. Though not without interest, Dorrie’s storyline is less compelling than Robert and Isabelle’s.
For me, this novel read a bit unbelievable in some early chapters: I found it hard to believe young Isabelle wasn’t aware of the extreme and very real danger she put Robert in. And Robert’s character, while vague throughout much of the book, was portrayed as almost perfect. All the other young males are portrayed as somewhat bovine in intelligence, or crazy and violent like Isabelle’s brothers.
But regardless of those flaws, by the middle of the book I was firmly hooked and couldn’t put it down. The string of misfortunes in the last quarter of the novel are tragic, but as presented, believable—and heart-wrenching. There were moments of brilliance in this novel: the humiliating struggle to find someone to marry them; and the wedding scene, which actually gave me goosebumps it is so tender and beautifully rendered. And there are moments in the second half where the prose is lovely and precise, and cuts right to the core with crystal clarity.
Calling Me Home is Julie Kibler’s debut novel. It’s of interest to note that the author wrote this novel after discovering her grandmother had fallen in love with a young black man as a young girl, and that family story was the jumping off point for this story. I’m happy to have read this novel and enjoyed it. It will be interesting to see what this writer writes next.
Calling Me Home is 322 pages. The copy I read is an ARC, so it’s not possible to comment on editing. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and She Reads for providing me a copy of this novel for review.