Whistling Past the Graveyard (Crandall)

Whistling Past the Graveyard 
Susan Crandall, 2013
Simon & Schuster
308 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781476707723



Summary
In the summer of 1963, nine-year-old spitfire Starla Claudelle runs away from her strict grandmother’s Mississippi home.

Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three—that’s when Lulu left for Nashville to become a famous singer. Starla’s daddy works on an oil rig in the Gulf, so Mamie, with her tsk-tsk sounds and her bitter refrain of “Lord, give me strength,” is the nearest thing to family Starla has. After being put on restriction yet again for her sassy mouth, Starla is caught sneaking out for the Fourth of July parade. She fears Mamie will make good on her threat to send Starla to reform school, so Starla walks to the outskirts of town, and just keeps walking. . . .

If she can get to Nashville and find her momma, then all that she promised will come true: Lulu will be a star. Daddy will come to live in Nashville, too. And her family will be whole and perfect. Walking a lonely country road, Starla accepts a ride from Eula, a black woman traveling alone with a white baby. The trio embarks on a road trip that will change Starla’s life forever. She sees for the first time life as it really is—as she reaches for a dream of how it could one day be. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—N/A
Where—Noblesville, Indiana, USA
Education—Harper College (in Illinois)
Awards—RITA Award for Best First Book; two
   Readers' Choice Awards
Currently—lives in Noblesville, Indiana


Unlike so many writers, Susan Crandall did not emerge from the womb with a pen and paper in hand and a fully formed story in her mind. Instead, she was born with an incredible love for books. This must be genetic, because her father and now her son, both hated school, but are somehow addicted to books.

For much of her young life, even those exhausting years when her children were young and Susan worked in her previous profession (yes, the rumor is true, she was a dental hygienist) she was an avid reader. Susan has always been fascinated with words—those of you who catch yourself reading the dictionary when you cracked it open to look up mesopelagic you just might have a writer hiding inside you, too.

Then, her younger sister admitted that she'd been writing, secretly of course. That admission led to Susan editing her sister's work (as the older sister, Susan was never short of opinions to share). Then Susan and her sister co-authored four novels, none of which were published. Her sister decided to move on after those four books, but Susan was totally addicted. She'd learned too much about the process of writing, the craft of storytelling and the world of the written word to give it up.

Back Roads (2003) was Susan Crandall's first solo work, her first published work, and her first award winning novel, winning a RITA for Best First Book and two National Reader's Choice Awards.

Susan grew up in a small Indiana town, married a guy from that town, and then moved to Chicago for a while. She is pleased to say that she has been back in her hometown for many years and plans to stay. She and her husband have two grown children. "They make me proud every day," Susan glows. "My son, who has the heart of a poet, is also a writer. My daughter, who is both beautiful and brilliant, is about to take her first steps into the working world of science." (From the author on Facebook.)



Book Reviews
[D]erivative, if well-intentioned.... Starla’s fiery independence makes her a likeable narrator, which compensates somewhat for the underdeveloped adult characters and unbelievable plot points. While Starla’s story lacks the elegance of The Secret Life of Bees or the emotional intensity of The Dry Grass of August, fans of simple feel-good coming-of-age tales set in the 1960s...will enjoy the ride.
Publishers Weekly


When Starla runs away, worried that she will be punished for an infraction, she's offered a ride by a black woman who's herself on the run. The result: Starla comes to understand what segregation looks like in the Deep South, circa 1963. From a RITA Award winner
Library Journal


It’s not easy to keep such a young narrator convincing for more than 300 pages... Readers will take to Starla and be caught up in her story.
Booklist


Crandall delivers big with a coming-of-age story set in Mississippi in 1963 and narrated by a precocious 9-year-old. Due in part to tradition, intimidation and Jim Crow laws, segregation is very much ingrained into the Southern lifestyle in 1963.... Assisted by a black schoolteacher who shows Eula and Starla unconditional acceptance and kindness, both ultimately learn that love and kinship transcend blood ties and skin color. Young Starla is an endearing character whose spirited observations propel this nicely crafted story.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. By telling the story from Starla’s point of view, we get to look at the South in 1963 through the eyes of a child. Why do you think the author chose a child narrator? What do you think this adds to the story? How do you think the book would be different if it were told from the perspective of someone like Eula or Lulu?

2. We see different sides of Mamie’s character throughout the novel. Do you think her changes are manufactured for her own benefit? Or are they genuine? Which moment convinced you one way or the other?

3. Secrets permeate the plot of the novel. As a child narrator, Starla has many secrets kept from her. Some secrets are to protect her, while others are simply too painful to share. Name a few of these secrets. Was the secret justified or would it have been better to reveal it earlier?

4. Eula claims that ultimately Wallace’s downfall is his pride. Do you agree? Do you think that this is true or that Wallace is a victim of his circumstances? Do you sympathize with him at all?

5. After leaving Wallace behind and travelling with Starla, we see Eula beginning to find herself. Do you think that there’s a specific moment when that happens?

6. Eula and Starla are both products of dysfunctional families. How different or similar are their coping mechanisms for dealing with their families? In what way do they influence each other as they grow stronger?

7. From the beginning of the novel, Starla questions the implications of the religious beliefs that she sees practiced around her. How do Starla’s thoughts on religion evolve as she meets characters such as Eula and Miss Cyrena? Do you think she comes to a conclusion by the end of her journey?

8. In Miss Cyrena’s neighborhood, Starla experiences first-hand the harsh reality of discrimination. How does her experience there change her and affect her character? She’s even called a “polar bear.” How does this affect her throughout the rest of the book?

9. Miss Cyrena claims that people never actually change, we just change our perception of them. To what degree do you think this is true? Does it apply to Wallace? Lulu? Mamie?

10. The carnival is a major recurring theme throughout the novel: Eula’s spirit is broken when her cousin is beaten and Starla faces her biggest adversary (the Jenkins brothers). What is it about this setting that you think is integral to these scenes?

11. Discuss the interplay of race and class. Mamie is vehemently against Black equality, possibly because of her low social standing. This is similar to the Jenkins brothers. How do these obstacles overlap?

12. When they make a pie crust together, Eula warns Starla against “working the dough” too much. How do you think this is symbolic of Eula’s philosophy in general? What does this teach Starla?

13. Eula tells Starla that everyone is born with many gifts, but it is up to them to discover them. What are some gifts that Eula and Starla discover during their journey? Why do you think Eula is so determined to help Starla find her gifts?

14. At the end of the story, Starla’s father lives up to her dreams, but her mother disappoints her. How did you feel about each of them at the end of the story?

15. If this novel were a movie, who do you imagine would play Starla and Eula?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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