Calling Me Home is surprisingly enjoyable. Surprising because, let's be honest, white women trying to write a feel-good story about the black experience has not only become cliché, but is and has always been a dangerous path to take. Through their stories, an evident ignorance or disregard for black culture is often found, and I can't help but wonder of the authors' motivations. Calling Me Home is surprising because, though it starts on a path very familiar, the journey takes a turn, goes in a completely different direction than expected, and becomes a story that feels genuine.
When I started this novel, I saw problems on the horizon. One of the biggest problems these books have is that the author crafts ignorant and condescending black characters. When we first meet Dorrie in this novel, she has potential to be this sort of character. She's the black stereotype: the I'm-in-charge-don'cho-mess-wit-me type. Second, she's a hairdresser. (Of course.) And, to top it all off, she calls the old white lady “Miss Isabelle.” Okay, I'd be fine with the Miss if Dorrie was in the 1930s that some of this story takes place in, but she's not, she's in the present, and that Miss really rattled me.
But then the surprise came. The “Miss” was acknowledged. It wasn't explained or justified, it was just acknowledged. That acknowledgment meant something to me. It meant the author was aware. It meant that Miss Kibler wasn't ignorant of the condescending tone of that word, but that she merely was using it as a unique character trait. It was as if by using something stereotypical and demeaning, Kibler somehow turned it around and made it original, a sign of Dorrie's compassion and strength.
The other problem is that these stories too often focus on a white character's sudden self-awakening. When we're first introduced to Isabelle in the present, and it was clear that the story largely focused on her romantic interests with a black boy in the 1930s, I could tell I was in for a “Eureka, black people are not that different from me” moment. But it never came. Sure Isabelle had her questions and realizations, but only what you'd expect from a willful and intelligent sixteen-year-old girl growing in up an all-white town in the South. And no, Isabelle wasn't perfect either. She was too naïve; if she didn't understand how much her actions affected Robert's safety as well as his family's, I question her intelligence, if not her motives. Was she that blinded by love? That needy? Nevertheless, what I expected from her didn't come. She may have disregarded the law of the land, unknowingly put others in danger, but she had high regards for the humanity of those around her.
Now I know this review may sound like I'm saying authors cannot write outside of their own ethnicity. I'm not saying that at all. In fact, I believe very much the opposite. I personally do it. I've written several times from the black point-of-view, but that's because I've experienced it on some level and am not completely ignorant of the subject. I was that teenager, the one white kid in the sea of black faces, I was there and suffered from the accusations, the harassment, the tramping of hope. I can say I understand, but only to a degree. The difference was, I could get away from it. I could denounce it, find new friends, and be made new if I had wanted. But I've been there—I know what it's like to be hated, to be spit upon, to be pulled over by the police day after day. I know what it feels like to be called derogatory names that acknowledge my skin color (or my allegiance to a skin color).
There are people whose entire experience with black culture is Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg, and it is my strong opinion that these people have not earned the right to pretend mastery of the voice. The theme of race relations to them is a Hallmark movie and no more. They are desperately in need of education on the issue. They need immersion.
It is clear reading Calling Me Home that Kibler has immersed herself one way or another in the culture of these character. She may have first-hand experience. She may have just done her research. Either way, she handled these characters with care and it shows. It's not perfect, and there are times when I wish Dorrie had been a stronger character, but it never felt offensive. Dorrie was human, not a dressed-up cutout from a box of Aunt Jemima's. Equally human were Isabelle, Robert, and the whole cast (Teague may have not been human—he was a little too perfect—but I suspect the author may have intentionally slipped a robot into the story for a possible future novel about robot-human romance).
But it's not all about ethnicity, it's about experience. I want to make this clear. It doesn't matter what point-of-view you write from culturally, if you do not share common ground with the person you're writing for, you can only fail. For instance, if you're a white person growing up in contemporary America and you've face some hardships, perhaps your child is sick and you cannot scrap together the money to live, then I suspect you can write about black maids, struggling to get by in the South. But first you better immerse yourself in the culture—read some Ellison, or Hughes, or Hurston, listen to jazz, r&b, and hip-hop, go to your local black-predominate neighborhood and be involved. Say you're not struggling, though. In fact, life is merely a flavor on the tip of a silver spoon. Your greatest problem has been choosing a college and a dent your SUV suffered while parked at Whole Foods. Truthfully, you shouldn't go there. You want to write about the black experience, find someone that shares that commonality. Still immerse yourself in the culture, but don't patronize all of us with your story about brother/sisterhood in the midst of struggle. No, you can write a much better, more human story telling your readers what you know. And if that's a fictionalization of the life of Willow Smith, so be it.
So I've gotten carried away. When I started writing this review, I hadn't intended to make it so personal. Shame on me. But that's the thing about this sort of book, it gets you talking. That's why Calling Me Home should be very popular with book clubs. I see a future for this book that rivals Water for Elephants, The Kite Runner, Sarah's Key, and, oh yeah, The Help. Someday it will be turned into a movie, and my hope is that the production team assigned to the film doesn't see another story that falsely portrays the reconciliation of races, but a story about love and shared humanity.
Calling Me Home is what it is—a touching novel written largely for women and book clubs. As for its literary merits, it's light, but written well. Kibler does a fabulous job finding the voices of these characters and staying in them. The pacing is good; the story was interesting and mostly logical. The biggest flaw with this book, in my opinion, is the author's attempt to withhold information for the sake of suspense. It's something I've come to expect from these book-club books, but it didn't settle well for this one. It was a obvious ploy. Not only that, but I found the “great reveal” to be rather predictable. It was sometime during chapter 19, I remember, about half-way through the book (the “wedding” scene specifically), that I had the whole story figured out. Perhaps it was because I was expecting a reveal, or perhaps it's the writer in me, but no part of the ending surprised me.
So where the author intended to surprise me, she didn't, but as I stated at the beginning of this rambling review, she did surprise me. Calling Me Home isn't perfect, it isn't eye opening or revolutionary, but it is a very human exploration of our shared need for love. And this is a huge step in the right direction.