Kirkus Review says of Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home that “love and family defy the expected in this engaging tale.” From Amazon’s author page on Julie Kibler, readers learn Kibler “began writing Calling Me Home after learning a bit of family lore: as a young woman, her grandmother fell in love with a young black man in an era and locale that made the relationship impossible.” That story becomes the starting point for Kibler’s Calling Me Home.
Miss Isabelle, a widow, is almost ninety; Dorrie has been Miss Isabelle’s hair stylist for over ten years. Miss Isabelle is white; Dorrie is black, almost sixty years younger than Miss Isabelle, a divorced mother of two. Dorrie and Miss Isabelle live in Arlington, TX. The last few years, Dorrie has been taking care of Miss Isabelle’s hair in Miss Isabelle’s home because Miss Isabelle gave up driving.
Dorrie does other little favors for Miss Isabelle too, not because she must, but because she enjoys helping Miss Isabelle, much as a daughter would. The two have forged an unlikely friendship and know a great deal about one another. Still, they are about to embark on a physical journey that will take them on an emotional journey for the two of them and, in doing so, they will learn even more about one another.
One Monday morning, as usual, Dorrie turns up to wash, set, and style Miss Isabelle’s hair. Miss Isabelle makes a strange request. She wants Dorrie to drop everything and drive Miss Isabelle almost one thousand miles to Cincinnati, Ohio. Readers quickly realize that Miss Isabelle is not making this request lightly or simply to take a vacation. The trip is meaningful to the ninety-year-old. Dorrie asks few questions other than how far. Miss Isabelle does request that Dorrie bring along a dress. That’s when Dorrie realizes the two are going to a funeral.
After looking at her appointment book, Dorrie sees that she can rearrange some scheduled appointments and also rely on her mother to care for Stevie and Bebe, her teenaged children. That leaves Teague, the new man in her life, the one she thinks might be different from the others because he is kind, thoughtful, and reliable. Teague is a single father of three; his wife left him deciding that being tied down to one man and three children did not suit her. He even tells Dorrie to give his number to her mother in case the mother needs help with Stevie and Bebe, acting more concerned than their biological father.
Kibler tells the story in the present day with both Miss Isabelle and Dorrie relating information about their lives, often through the crossword puzzle clues as they work through two puzzle books on the trip. Miss Isabelle also fills in her story starting in 1939 in Shalerville, KY, just across from Cincinnati. In 1939, Shalerville had signs to the town’s entrances barring Blacks from being in town after sundown, even those who worked for the white families as many did.
Miss Isabelle’s family is white, rich, and privileged. Her father is a physician, so he is well-known and respected in Shalervlle. Cora Prewitt, a black woman, works for the family as cook and cleaner. Her daughter Nell plays with Isabelle when they are children and then begins working in the home alongside her mother, putting an end to the childhood friendship because of the boundaries imposed by society. Cora’s son Robert also does odd jobs for the family, often washing Dr. McAllister’s car, working in the yard, and mending fences.
As a teenager, Isabelle makes a foolish and dangerous decision to meet a new school friend at a club in Newport one evening. Robert happens to see her walking in a direction he knows she should not be going, so he follows and waits in the shadows outside the club. Isabelle is naïve and accepts two alcoholic drinks from Louie, a stranger, after her friend abandons her for a young man. Louie pulls Isabelle, now quite unsteady on her feet, out into the alley, for “some air.” He begins mauling her when Robert steps out of the shadows and tells Louie to leave the young lady alone. A brief fight ensues, but Robert manages to rescue Isabelle.
He insists on taking her back to her home safely even though he is endangering himself by being in Shalerville after dark. Isabelle pleads with him not to go with her because she knows the danger for him, but he refuses to listen. They board the street car together, but she sits at the front and he at the back; they are the only riders. They get off at a point where they must then walk to Isabelle’s home.
The next day Isabelle is worried about Robert and his safety, but she cannot ask directly or risk incriminating the two of them. That evening, however, begins a relationship that cannot be, yet neither can resist the pull between them.
Of course, Dorrie knows nothing of this story. The pictures she sees in Miss Isabelle’s home are all of white people: Max, Miss Isabelle’s late husband, and Dane, her son, also deceased. Dane did have a wife and two children who live in Hawaii. How does Robert figure into the rest of the story and whose funeral are they attending?
Isabelle finds ways to engage Robert in conversation, showing up where he is and asking him questions. They are falling in love, a much-forbidden love that will get them both in serious trouble. Earlier this year, I read The Tumbling Turner Sisters, set during the Great Depression in NYC area. In that story, the Turner sisters create a vaudeville act; on their tours, they meet a talented young black man. When they befriend him, he gets fired from his job and beaten up for socializing with white women. I worried every time that Isabelle sought Robert out that they would be discovered and with dire consequences. Robert’s life was in danger every time he and Isabelle were alone together.
On the trip to Cincinnati, Dorrie and Miss Isabelle share their stories. Dorrie still does not know why Miss Isabelle is so set on attending the funeral until they arrive at the funeral home and see the deceased. I’ll leave that to surprise the readers. No spoilers! The ending will be a tear-jerker for many.
My mother owned a beauty shop in a small town in southeast Arkansas. I grew up in the shop, listening to women talk. She did not have black clients because the beauty school she went to in Louisiana in the mid-1930s was not integrated. Unlike Dorrie, decades later, Mother did not learn how to care for black women’s hair. Mother often picked up ladies who could not drive, or no longer drove, took them to the shop, washed, set, and styled their hair, and took them home, all for a pittance. She also went to their homes if they were unable to get out easily. Often, Mother’s final gift to her client/friends was to do their hair and nails at the funeral home.
Carol F. Brill in the NY Journal of Books says of Calling Me Home, “For an avid reader, little can match the thrill of a character pulling you into her world the second she arrives on the page as Isabelle does in the opening page of Calling Me Home.” Kibler succeeds in pulling the readers into the story from the beginning.
In July, the members of my book club, READ, bring a book to share with the rest of the group. My friend Theresa Edwards shared Coming Home by Julie Kibler, and I am glad she did.