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Looking at the Past Through a Child's Eye

By John J. Kelly · February 19th, 2014 · Lit
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Since the publication of Noblesville, Ind., author Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard, readers have been falling in love with both the novel and its precocious 9-year-old narrator, Starla Claudelle.For Crandall, the award-winning author of nine previous novels, this release is a departure of sorts: telling a morality tale that echoes the works of both Mark Twain and Harper Lee while addressing Jim Crow laws in America’s Deep South. 

As the novel begins, Starla is running away from an ultra-strict grandmother.She is intent on walking hundreds of miles to Nashville to find her mother, who abandoned her when she was an infant to pursue a singing career.Starla eventually tires of walking and hitches a ride with Eula, an African-American woman with secrets of her own, including an abandoned white newborn in the car’s backseat. 

Over the course of the novel, Starla and Eula form a trust and mutual love through which each discovers the strength and wisdom to carry them home again.CityBeat recently spoke recently with Crandall about her novel and its journey of the soul.

CityBeat: What interested you in setting this novel in Mississippi in 1963?

Susan Crandall: I was a child in that turbulent time, living in Indiana.So all those momentous events in the Civil Rights era happened on the periphery of my life and were filtered through my child’s understanding.While researching this novel, it was interesting to compare what I comprehended then against what I discovered in historical records.It’s always an emotional journey for me when I write a book, and my novels always deal with difficult life situations, but this one moved me especially deeply, in part because of my childish ignorance.

CB: The entirety of the 1960s was full of Civil Rights turmoil.What else made this era such a perfect backdrop for your novel?


SC: The thing that initially pointed me in the direction of a historical setting was my need for my young heroine to run away in a time before Amber Alerts and immediate mobilization for missing children.I needed a time when small-town children had the freedom to be off on their own for hours without cell phones, etc.Once I made that decision, I looked for a setting with great soil in which to grow an interesting story.

CB: Starla has been compared to other young iconic literary voices, including Huck Finn and Scout Finch.How much of yourself did you find in Starla and when did you decide you wanted her to be the narrator?

SC: Dear Starla and I share very few personality traits, other than the need to fight for the underdog and hatred of bullies.I’ve always been a rule follower.Starla is much braver and much, much more impulsive.She began with a stronger identity than any character I’ve ever written.In fact, she was “talking” to me for months before I began writing this book.It quickly became clear that she would be a sole first-person narrator.I specifically chose 9 for her age because I feel at that age a person accepts the world in which they live with little question.I wanted her at a point when her worldview was on the brink of change, as well as young enough and vulnerable enough to accept what Eula has to offer her.

CB: The relationship that develops between Starla and Eula is remarkable.Do you think they are so similar because of their sense of shame?

SC: Shame is one aspect, certainly, but the larger thing that binds Starla and Eula is their mutual need for unconditional love, which I feel is every human being’s largest and most urgent need — and every child’s birthright. Also, they complement each other; one’s weakness is the other’s strength.

CB: How rewarding has it been capturing the hearts of so many readers with this novel?

SC: I have a dear friend from childhood who was very ill when she read this book before publication, and has since passed.Her beautiful words to me were, “This book is going to change your life.” My answer, “It already has.” The process of discovering these characters and their journey is a gift I’ll always cherish.Looking through their eyes also changed me fundamentally.

SUSAN CRANDALL discusses and signs Whistling Past the Graveyard at The Booksellers on Fountain Square Saturday.More info: facebook.com/booksellersonfountainsquare.



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