St. Martin’s Press|February 12, 2013|Hardcover|ISBN: 978-1-250-01453-5
Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler is a soaring debut interweaving the story of a heartbreaking, forbidden love in 1930’s Kentucky with an unlikely modern-day friendship. Ninety-year-old Isabelle McAllister has a favour to ask her hairdresser, Dorrie Curtis. It’s a big one. Isabelle wants Dorrie, a black single mom in her thirties, to drop everything to drive her from her home in Arlington, Texas, to a funeral in Cincinnati with no clear explanation as to why tomorrow.
Dorrie, fleeing problems of her own and curious whether she can unlock the secrets of Isabelle’s guarded past, scarcely hesitates before agreeing, not knowing it will be a journey that changes both their lives.
Over the years, Dorrie and Isabelle have developed more than just a business relationship. They are friends. But Dorrie, fretting over the new man in her life and her teenage son’s irresponsible choices, still wonders why Isabelle chose her.
Isabelle confesses that, as a willful teen in 1930’s Kentucky, she fell deeply in love with Robert Prewitt, a would-be doctor and the black son of her family’s housekeeper – in a town where blacks weren’t allowed out after dark. The tale of their forbidden relationship and it’s tragic consequences makes it clear Dorrie and Isabelle are headed for a gathering of the utmost importance and that the history of Isabelle’s first and greatest love just might help Dorrie find her own way.
I really enjoyed the way this story was told in alternating voices between Dorrie and Isabelle. Isabelle’s chapters are told in the first person with memories of her childhood whereas Dorrie’s chapters deal with present day occurrences.
Dorrie is thirty-six-years-old and is an African-American hairdresser who owns her own shop. She has a teenage son, Steve Junior and a younger daughter, Bebe. Dorrie constantly worries over the choices young Steve makes and is divorced but has a new man in her life, Teague who is a single Dad of three children. She isn’t sure whether she wants to take that next step with this man and become more involved in the relationship.
Miss Isabelle is ninety-years-old and has been friends with Dorrie for ten years and thinks of Dorrie as a daughter. Dorrie feels Isabelle is more of a mother to her than the one she has.
Dorrie has been doing Isabelle’s hair at Isabelle’s home for five years now since she had a bad fall and the doctor told her she couldn’t drive anymore. People of Isabelle’s age suffer all sorts of loses.
Isabelle asks Dorrie to drive her one-thousand miles from their home in Arlington, Texas to Cincinnati for a funeral but doesn’t tell her who the funeral is for. There were a lot of things that Dorrie wondered about Isabelle and during their drive she finally got up the nerve to ask her: “Did you have a high school sweetheart? Your husband, was he yours?” The response Dorrie received was: “My high school sweetheart…that’s a story – it all started and ended with a funeral dress.”
In 1939, Isabelle’s father was a physician and the only one in the town of Shalverville, Kentucky. At age seventeen, she was a very serious girl and didn’t like attending parties. However, she would consent to their hairdresser, Nell ‘dolling her up’ if forced to attend one. Isabelle snuck out of the house one night to meet up with her new friend, Trudie who was taking them to a new club in town called the, Rendezvous but the only dress she had looked like a funeral dress but it would have to do for she had nothing better. While standing alone listening to swing music a boy approached her with a couple of drinks and led her outside to the patio where he immediately began to take advantage of her. Just as she was getting into some real difficulty with this boy, Nell’s son (her hairdresser), Robert Prewitt showed up and saved her. Trudie had gone off with some guy so Robert walked Isabelle home even though he was taking a terrible chance as blacks weren’t allowed outside after dark, there was a curfew. If caught, Robert would be in a heap of trouble but he felt that Isabelle was more than worth the risk he was taking. Soon Robert and Isabelle were together again when they spend an afternoon at the creek due to the severe heat. A sudden thunder and lightning storm blew up and they took cover under a tree. Isabelle loved it but wouldn’t tell Robert that and she was quite sad and disappointed when the storm was over and Robert let her go. Isabelle was already falling in love with the young, Robert Prewitt!
Listening to all this as she drove, Dorrie quickly formed an opinion that Isabelle most likely was not the quiet, reserved little thing as a young woman she had first thought she was. This new version of Isabelle would make it easier for Dorrie to reveal her own missteps and made her feel more confident that Isabelle wouldn’t judge her for it.
Dorrie finally musters the nerve to tell Isabelle that she thinks Steve junior’s girlfriend, Bailey is pregnant. Much to her surprise, Isabelle tells Dorrie to love that grandchild no matter what.
As the miles ticked by between Texas and Cincinnati, Dorrie and Isabelle stopped to eat, sleep, and continue the confiding of their own personal stories.
Isabelle began meeting Robert at his church each Wednesday helping him prune and sweep and even brought him a piece of pie that his own mother baked as she worked for Isabelle’s family so she had to be doubly careful not to get caught meeting up with Robert. Sneaking out of the house one night to head to Robert’s church to her Nell sing a solo, she finally told Robert she loved him.
The two women are growing more comfortable confiding in each as they continue to drive when Dorrie tells Isabelle that Steve Jr., phoned to say, Bailey was indeed pregnant and was planning on having an abortion tomorrow! Isabelle finally confides to Dorrie that it is most likely she’ll be the ONLY white person at the funeral in Cincinnati. We still, at this point in the story, don’t know whose funeral they are attending. Isabelle is keeping that a closely guarded secret. But why?
While reading this story one has to remember that during Isabelle’s time in the 1930’s and 1940’s, black and white communities were kept separate. Even many years “after” the civil war, Isabelle’s town still didn’t allow African-Americans to live inside its borders.
Isabelle and Robert Prewitt shared a wonderful bond and a love so deep it’ll give you goose bumps. There is so much more packed into this story that you’re going to have a very hard time putting it down. In this review I have only scratched the surface and the ending is totally unexpected and will absolutely blow you right out of your chair! The feeling of melancholy will overtake you at this point.
Calling Me Home is a novel of friendship, bonding, trust, sharing confidences, part love story, learning to let go, hope for the future and an end to the past. Julie Kibler’s debut novel, in my opinion, will become a big hit and I expect to see it on the bestseller lists within a relatively short time. Thank you, Julie for writing a story that evoked so many emotions in me and one I won’t soon forget. I’ll always carry a piece of Miss Isabelle and Dorrie with me for a long time to come. Calling Me Home is also the perfect title for this novel and once you’ve read it, you’ll understand why. Well-done!!