Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Emotional picture of heartbreak, loss

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Calling Me Home

By Julie Kibler

St. Martin's Press, 336 pages, $29

Part The Help and part Driving Miss Daisy, this debut American novel is a touching and enlightening story about unlikely friendship, racism and the lines that blur between cultures when love gets in the way.

Pulling from her own whispered family history, author Julie Kibler, who grew up in Kentucky, where the novel is set, depicts an unlikely friendship between Miss Isabelle -- an elderly white woman -- and Dorrie -- her young black hairdresser.

In the present, Isabelle has requested that Dorrie drive her to Cincinnati, or "Cincy," for a mysterious funeral. Along the way, we are introduced to Dorrie's troubled life as she deals with running her own salon, trying to trust the new man in her world and raising two teenagers as a single mother.

More important, however, is the story Miss Isabelle reveals during the journey. She takes us with her into the 1940s, where as a young girl growing up in Kentucky, she is mired in a culture of abject racism.

Signs stand guard as she enters the small town of Shalerville declaring it illegal for black people to be out after sundown.

Questioning the truths she's been told by her parents and the society she has grown up in, Miss Isabelle harbours a sympathetic spot for the persecuted race. Her family's housemaid, Cora, and her daughter, Nell, with whom she grew up, both hold special and respected places in her heart.

After taking a foolish risk that lands Miss Isabelle in trouble, she is rescued by Robert -- Cora's son -- and quickly discovers he is more than he seems. As the two become friends, their feelings turn into something more.

What follows is a harrowing and often frustrating journey for the young couple as they face what seem like insurmountable odds. They encounter deep currents of racism: it's hard for a liberal Canadian to believe the world was ever that way.

There are several touching and poignant moments between Isabelle and Robert that make their romance entirely believable and conveying the innocence of first love. The reader feels compelled to root for them through every page.

Kibler also does an admirable job of depicting the developing friendship between Dorrie and Miss Isabelle as she weaves their stories back and forth in time. Her writing is fluid and easy to get lost in.

Her main characters are likable and relatable, and she manages to find a balance between the horrifying details of old-fashioned southern racism and a beautiful story.

The injustices thrust on the African-Americans for centuries are not new information for anyone who has read novels like The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird and countless others.

Where Kibler excels is in her development of the feisty Miss Isabelle and dashing Robert, painting an emotional picture of heartbreak and loss.

Kibler also offers up some surprises along the way that the reader likely won't see coming. When all put together, it's a tale not to be missed.

Nisha Tuli is a Winnipeg writer and blogger.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 J7

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