Crandall (Sleep No More, 2010, etc.) delivers big with a coming-of-age story set in Mississippi in 1963 and narrated by a precocious 9-year-old.
Due in part to tradition, intimidation and Jim Crow laws, segregation is very much ingrained into the Southern lifestyle in 1963. Few white children question these rules, least of all Starla Caudelle, a spunky young girl who lives with her stern, unbending grandmother in Cayuga Springs, Miss., and spends an inordinate amount of time on restriction for her impulsive actions and sassy mouth. Starla’s dad works on an oil rig in the Gulf; her mother abandoned the family to seek fame and fortune in Nashville when Starla was 3. In her youthful innocence, Starla’s convinced that her mother’s now a big singing star, and she dreams of living with her again one day, a day that seems to be coming more quickly than Starla’s anticipated. Convinced that her latest infraction is about to land her in reform school, Starla decides she has no recourse but to run away from home and head to Nashville to find her mom. Ill prepared for the long, hot walk and with little concept of time and distance, Starla becomes weak and dehydrated as she trudges along the hot, dusty road. She gladly accepts water and a ride from Eula, a black woman driving an old truck, and finds, to her surprise, that she’s not Eula’s only passenger. Inside a basket is a young white baby, an infant supposedly abandoned outside a church, whom Eula calls James. Although Eula doesn’t intend to drive all the way to Nashville, when she shows up at her home with the two white children, a confrontation with her husband forces her into becoming a part of Starla’s journey, and it’s this journey that creates strong bonds between the two: They help each other face fears as they each become stronger individuals. Starla learns firsthand about the abuse and scare tactics used to intimidate blacks and the skewed assumption of many whites that blacks are inferior beings. Assisted by a black schoolteacher who shows Eula and Starla unconditional acceptance and kindness, both ultimately learn that love and kinship transcend blood ties and skin color.
Young Starla is an endearing character whose spirited observations propel this nicely crafted story.