Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler recalls the relationship between Isabelle McCallister and Dorrie Curtis, her hair dresser. The novel begins with a brief introduction by the main character Isabelle. She confesses that she feels she acted horribly towards Dorrie on their first meeting: her regular hair dresser had quit and Isabelle is not a big fan of change. As the years pass, they form a friendship which on the surface seems unlikely. Isabelle is 89 and white, whereas Dorrie is in her mid-30’s and African American. Although neither woman says it out loud, they come to depend and rely on each other and their bond deepens to that of a mother/daughter relationship.
Still, Dorrie is taken aback when Isabelle approaches her and asks Dorrie to drive her from their home in Texas to a funeral in Cincinnati. Isabelle does not initially say who 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 of 16 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.
As the story unfolds, 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 old boy brothers, and her caring but ineffectual father. Interspersed in this, we also see Dorrie’s reaction and how it impacts her dealings with her own family and romantic relationships.
Calling Me Home will draw immediate and obvious comparisons to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Both are debut novels which deal with race relations in the United States during the early and mid days of the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast to The Help, which takes place in the 1960’s and surrounds the lives of an extensive group of people, Calling Me Home focuses primarily on Isabelle, Robert, and their immediate families.
In addition, The Help touches on the impact people such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X have on the characters’ lives, whereas Calling Me Home takes place before those figures rose to prominence.
Finally, in Calling Me Home, Isabelle is a naive and idealistic woman in love, whereas in The Help, Skeeter views herself as an activist.
Calling Me Home drew me in from the beginning and even now, weeks after finishing, has not fully let go. 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. In the end, I felt as if I had been put through an emotional wringer. While the book ends on a positive note, it does not neatly tie up all the loose ends – much like real life.
Calling Me Home is likely to prompt considerable discussion among readers. The novel does an excellent job of showing the reader that while society has progressed considerably since 1939, things are still not where they should be in the year 2015. Seeing the characters dealing with concerns such as where their marriage will be legal or clergy who tell them their marriage is an abomination or un-Biblical, drew significant parallels for me in the current struggle for gay rights and marriage equality. In addition, reading this novel in light of the recent events of Ferguson and elsewhere shows the reader how little certain things have changed.
Kibler writes with a style that draws the reader deep into the story in a subtle and eloquent manner. I found the story so engrossing that I experienced a certain element of culture shock coming out of the novel. The slow but natural development of Isabelle and Robert’s relationship over the course of many months felt neither rushed nor drawn out. Many moments of 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 in her relationship with Robert, 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, are misfits within their own families, and have an idealistic desire to change the world in which they live.
While Kibler did an excellent job of developing the primary characters of Robert and Isabelle, I did find myself connecting less with Dorrie and some of the secondary characters. Dorrie came off as unnecessarily angry and while Kibler adequately explained that Dorrie had been deeply hurt by her ex-husband and other significant family struggles, I did not feel they warranted her hostility towards society as a whole.
I also wanted to understand more of Isabelle’s father. It is clear by his actions that he did 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 in order to ensure Robert’s proper education, but is completely ineffectual when it comes to his own daughter. In contrast, the characterization of Isabelle’s mother was solidly written. The reader came to discover 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 her carefully crafted appearances.
Calling Me Home is a compelling tale that handles decades of race relations with sensitivity while not shying away from harsher elements. Certain scenarios are predictable and familiar, but Kibler doles out the story in small enough increments to keep the reader hanging until the surprising end.