Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler recalls the relationship between Isabelle McCallister and her hairdresser, Dorrie Curtis.
The novel begins with a brief introduction by Isabelle. She feels she acted horribly towards Dorrie on their first meeting. Her regular hairdresser had quit and Isabelle is not a big fan of change.
As the years pass, they form an unlikely friendship. Isabelle is 89 and white; Dorrie is in her mid-30s and African-American. Although neither woman says it out loud, they come to depend on each other and their bond deepens to more of a mother/daughter relationship. Dorrie is taken aback when Isabelle asks Dorrie to drive her to a funeral in Cincinnati.
Isabelle does not initially say whom the funeral is for and Dorrie, in an effort to respect her privacy, doesn’t ask. As the two travel, Isabelle begins to recall events from life as a young woman to the present.
Told in alternating perspectives, starting with Isabelle in 1939, the reader discovers alongside Dorrie how Isabelle fell in love with and married Robert Prewitt, the son of her family’s “colored” housemaid.
Kibler allows the reader to experience Isabelle and Robert’s relationship almost as an intimate participant. We learn of Isabelle’s overbearing mother, her good-ol’-boy brothers, and her caring but ineffectual father. Interspersed in this, we see Dorrie’s reaction, her dealings with her own family and romantic relationships.
Calling Me Home will draw immediate comparisons to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Both are debut novels that deal with race relations in the United States during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.
In contrast to The Help, which takes place in the 1960s and surrounds the lives of an extensive group of people, Calling Me Home focuses primarily on Isabelle, Robert, and their immediate families.
In The Help, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcom X have an impact on the characters’ lives, whereas Calling Me Home takes place before those figures rose to prominence. Isabelle is a naive and idealistic woman in love, whereas in The Help, Skeeter views herself as an activist.
Kibler writes with a style that draws the reader deep into the story in a subtle and eloquent manner. I became so fully immersed in the book that I had to stop in the middle of a shopping trip to find a place where I could sit and finish it.
I experienced a certain element of culture shock coming out of the novel and even now, weeks after finishing, it has not fully let go. While the book ends on a positive note, it does not neatly tie up all the loose ends—much like real life—and I felt as if I had been put through an emotional wringer.
Calling Me Home is likely to prompt considerable discussion. While society has progressed considerably since 1939, things are still not where they should be in 2015. Reading this in light of the recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere shows how little certain things have changed.
The characters deal with concerns such as where their marriage will be legal, and clergy who tell them their marriage is an abomination or un-Biblical, drawing parallels to the current struggle for gay rights and marriage equality.
The slow but natural development of Isabelle and Robert’s relationship is neither rushed nor drawn out. Their transition from passing acquaintances to newlyweds had me waiting with a sense of anticipation to see what would bring them together and what would be the factor that tore them apart.
Isabelle and Robert both read as true-to-life characters. Robert is cautious where Isabelle is spontaneous, which is in keeping with their respective roles in society. At first I struggled with the idea of Isabelle as the pursuer, but as the book progressed, I began to see how Isabelle would be drawn to Robert’s quiet personality. Both are intellectuals and voracious readers, misfits within their own families, and have an idealistic desire to change the world.
I found myself connecting less with Dorrie, who comes off as unnecessarily angry. While she had been deeply hurt by her ex-husband and other family struggles, it doesn’t warrant her hostility.
I also wanted to understand more of Isabelle’s father. It is clear by his actions that he does not agree with the societal view towards African Americans. He encourages Robert’s aspirations of becoming a doctor, takes time out of his own schedule as a physician to tutor Robert, and contributes funds to ensure Robert’s education, but he’s completely ineffectual when it comes to his daughter.
In contrast, Isabelle’s mother was solidly written. The reader discovers how her lower class background drove her fight for a place in “proper society,” and the lengths to which she would go to keep up appearances.
Calling Me Home is a compelling tale that handles decades of race relations with sensitivity while not shying away from harsher realities.
Certain scenarios are predictable and familiar, but Kibler doles out the story in small enough increments to keep the reader hanging on until the surprising end. ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at email@example.com.