Written by: Julie Kibler
Published by: St. Martin’s Press February 12, 2013
Length: 336 pages
When I finished this book, I actually had to read the last chapter twice, I was already crying, but I needed to savor each word one more time. Written in both the voice of nearly 90 year old Isabelle retelling her life story, and Dorrie her 30 something black “beauty operator” as they travel over 1000 miles to attend a funeral near Isabelle’s hometown. As this older white woman describes the love of her life, a young black man in a time when this was not only socially taboo but forbidden in the eyes of most.
Isabelle McAllister grew up in Kentucky the daughter of the very respected town doctor. Her mother sees herself as having achieved a certain level of social class and will have no one change the family status. Isabelle is mostly raised by Cora, their black cook and housekeeper. Cora’s daughter Nell was near the same age as Isabelle and the two grew up as playmates and friends. A teen Nell left school and also worked in the McAllister home. Robert Prewitt is the son of Cora and he is attending school with plans of attending college and medical school. Isabelle’s father tutors the two of them often together, and he will be assisting Robert financially with his education. When Isabelle falls in love with Robert in 1939 she knows this will be difficult, but she is so sure that he is the man for her she is willing to risk her life and family to be with him. Robert talks to her about more than the weather, he appreciates her intellect and loves her zeal for life.
Dorrie Curtis has been doing Miss Isabelle’s hair for more than 10 years, but when she is asked to drive her to Cincinnati for a funeral she has doubts. She wonders why Isabelle chose her, and Dorrie also wonders if this is the right time to leave town. Her teen son is very involved with his girlfriend and she worries there may be more trouble brewing. Dorrie has just started seriously dating a new man, but she finds it so difficult to trust, having chosen all the wrong men in the past. While Isabelle shares her story Dorrie is given ample time to think about her own life, and those she loves.
I met Julie Kibler about a year ago while attending a book signing for Sarah McCoy’s The Baker’s Daughter. Julie was quiet and unassuming and while she did tell me she had a book coming out in 2013 she didn’t say much more. She was kind and we became facebook and twitter friends. I liked her, I appreciated her as a mom and a writer as I read her blog. As I learned more about her debut novel I began to anxiously anticipate it’s publication date…I truly couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. When CALLING ME HOME was chosen as She Reads book selection for February I couldn’t have been happier.
This story of forbidden love was so much more than even I expected. Julie had every small detail and nuance of an elderly woman’s speech and actions correct. She was exquisite in the telling of secret meetings, hidden notes and the lasting impact of the love that Robert and Isabelle shared. While the consequences were difficult to read I am sure they were spot on. In Shalerville KY where Isabelle lived there was a posted sign that warned that Negros were not allowed on the streets after sundown. My mother often told me of Greenville Texas, where there was a huge banner that read “Welcome to Greenville The blackest land, the whitest people”. Yep, racism was proudly hailed until the 1960’s in that way. I assure you the removal of the sign didn’t change the views of many people.
I was emotionally touched by Isabelle’s story, imagining her brave resolve to have the love she wanted. In the not so distant past I had my own experience dating and loving a very good man, who happened to be black. My own parents were outraged when the relationship turned serious, and their threats led me to end it. This was in 1983, not 1939, but just as devastating for me at the time. The outcome of Isabelle and Robert’s daring choices left many hurt and it divided Isabelle’s family. We learn much about Dorrie as they drive through the small east Texas town where she grew up, Dorrie recalls her high school days, and her first love and failed marriage that left her with a son and a daughter to basically raise alone. Dorrie’s compassion and respect for Isabelle grow as she learns more. She realizes the love and loss that the older woman has survived is much worse than she has overcome.
I can’t say enough about Calling Me Home, it’s a tale of love, overcoming hardships, friends, family and racism that will leave you wishing you had a long drive with Isabelle yourself. I’ve given this a 5/5 stars and I highly recommend this debut novel. You can learn more about Julie Kibler on her website, and she’s available on facebook, twitter and her writing group blog, What Women Write. Calling Me Home is the featured book this month on She Reads, drop by to see more reviews, author interviews and a great chat to come later this month. You can also enter to win one of ten copies of this wonderful book!
Calling Me Home is also a February Indie Next Pick and a Winter/Spring 2013 SIBA Okra Pick.