Calling Me Home, Julie Kibler

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock the last couple of years knows that issues of race are on the forefront of our nation's conversations right now. Issues of mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, tensions between police and the communities they serve, and the increasing racial segregation of our society are all being hotly debated throughout all levels of our policial and social institutions. As such, there are been a lot of really remarkable books published that seek to examine the issues of racial justice, and bring us together to combat the continuing systemic racism that plagues our country.

And while there are plenty of really thought-provoking and inspiring non-fiction titles examining these issues (if you haven't already, find The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander or Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), many times people need to be engaged emotionally before they feel motivated to dive into the complexities of the ways race affects our communal lives. Julie Kibler gives us a glimpse into the ways that race plays into our family and personal relationships in her novel, Calling Me Home. It tells the story of Isabelle McAllister, a wealthy woman in her 90s,  and Dorrie Curtis, Miss Isabelle's hairdresser and confidante. Moving back and forth between the Jim Crow south and the present day, Calling Me Home is both a love story, and a story about the sacrifices we make to protect ourselves and those we love.

Isabelle asks Dorrie to accompany her on a cross-country drive to a funeral. Dorrie, worried about her teenage son and a new romantic relationship, decides that maybe helping Miss Isabelle get where she needs to go will give her enough distance to get clarity on a few things. Miss Isabelle, for her part, uses the drive to unburden herself about a secret she's been keeping for decades. As a young woman in the 1930s, Miss Isabelle had a forbidden love affair with a young black man her worked for her family. Despite the dangers to both of them, but especially to him, they forge a deep bond of love that none of her family's condemnation can erase. Isabelle's youthful enthusiasm, and naivete, lead to tragic consequences that it takes until the end of the novel to truly understand.

The comparison between the past and present in the novel makes it clear that while the openly racist practices of things like "sundown towns" are no longer socially acceptable, the underlying "othering" of blacks, and the unwritten, unspoken boundaries between the white and black communities are in many ways still present. Dorrie spends a good part of the beginning of the novel questioing whether she can really trust a white woman like Isabelle, a sentiment that I am sad to say I have seen expressed by many women of color I love and respect in the wake of the recent presidential election. The story does veer a little bit into the sappy side from time to time, and it is hard to believe that the young Isabelle was really as naive as she appeared to be about the way her relationship would be perceived, but overall this story highlighted how poisonous racism can be, and the way it destroys relationships. And for those readers who like a twist, there is a surprise towards the end that heightens the emotional impact even more. Maybe after reading this story, and realizing that many of the same issues are still present, the reader will decide to pay attention to the ways that race and racism affect their relationships, their community, and the country as a whole. Because until you acknowledge a problem, you can't solve it.

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