Calling Me Home
by Julie Kibler
Published in 2014 by St. Martin’s Press
Reviewed by Martha Louise Hunter
Calling Me Home is a tearjerker with a surprising and unpredictable ending. It’s compelling, it’s interesting, it’s a love story—and who doesn’t love a good love story?
Julie Kibler herself calls it Fried Green Tomatoes meets Driving Miss Daisy. Warner Brothers, who’s optioned it for the big screen, compares it to the 2009 phenomenon, The Help. The book idea came from Julie’s grandmother. After she died, Kibler’s dad told her that her grandmother had fallen in love with a black man in her teens and that their families kept them apart. The revelation helped Julie understand why the woman had always seemed unhappy, and basically like she was somewhere else. So, Julie set out to write a book that dealt with the issues of forbidden love, friendship and racism, about a headstrong teenager who doesn’t foresee the chain of events she sets off.
Written in both the voice of nearly 90-year-old Isabelle relating her life story, and Dorrie, her 30-something black “beauty operator,” the story evolves during a 1000-mile road trip from Arlington to attend a funeral near Isabelle’s hometown. When Isabelle asks her to drop everything for a few days, she reluctantly agrees. With her crazy life, Dorrie will get a break from everything going on at home, with the added bonus of learning about Isabelle’s guarded past. With miles of road behind them, Isabelle begins to tell about her true love—a forbidden love.
As a willful teen, Isabelle fell for Robert Prewitt, a would-be doctor and the black son of her family’s housekeeper in Shalerville, Kentucky in 1939. A world where black maids and handymen are trusted to raise white children and tend to white houses, but from which they are banished after dark.
While driving, Dorrie’s hectic life seems to be following her. She feels pressed with her irresponsible son and with the new man in her life who seems too good to be true. But as she sits listening to Miss Isabelle’s story, she finds many truths in Miss Isabelle’s story that she can use in her own life:
”Some men are just plain bad news. Then there are good men. They’ll do. Then there are good men you love. If you find one of the last kind, you’d better hang on to him with everything you have.”
Isabelle grew up as the willful, privileged daughter of well-respected town doctor, and mostly raised by Cora, their black cook and housekeeper. Robert is Cora’s son who has plans of attending college and medical school. Isabelle’s father often tutors Isabelle and Robert together, and assists Robert financially with his education. Her mother sees herself as having achieved a certain level of social class and refuses to have anything diminish the family status. Robert talks to Isabelle about more than the weather, and he loves her intellect and her zest for life. As much as Robert cautions Isabelle, he too falls in love, and they risk everything to be together—hidden notes and secret meetings as well as crossing extraordinary, dangerous boundaries.
Each mile brings Isabelle and Dorrie closer to Cincinnati, and closer to the truth of what happened to Robert, but it’s the revelation of who died that forms the core of Calling Me Home.Once at the funeral where the truth is revealed, the two women are more connected than ever. The present-day section also serves another purpose of examining the current state of race relations. Through Dorrie’s eyes, we see what has changed in the seventy-or-so-years this novel covers, and also what hasn’t.
The atrocities, discrimination, prejudice and blatant disregard of human lives will sicken and sadden you. While the circumstances of the story are extreme, the feelings of being powerless and controlled by authority figures, and the intensity of first love are all universal experiences.
I thought I knew what was happening within her, and I was shaken and moved when all I’d predicted was not as it seemed. Will she or won’t she? Did she or didn’t she? You think you know, but you don’t. Repeat. You don’t.
Without giving spoilers, I can’t really say anything more, except this book will tear your heart out. It will also reaffirm that love is always worth the risk. And, you just may wish for a long drive with Isabelle yourself.
Martha Louise Hunter has a BA in English from the University of Texas. Her novel, Painting Juliana, is out May 20th by Goldminds Publishing. You can find out more about Martha at www.marthalouisehunter.com or visit her online estate jewelry collection shop: www.marthasjewelrycase.com.