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“In the summer of 1963, nine-year-old spitfire Starla Claudelle runs away from her strict grandmother’s Mississippi home. Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three—that’s when Lulu left for Nashville to become a famous singer. Starla’s daddy works on an oil rig in the Gulf, so Mamie, with her tsk-tsk sounds and her bitter refrain of “Lord, give me strength,” is the nearest thing to family Starla has. After being put on restriction yet again for her sassy mouth, Starla is caught sneaking out for the Fourth of July parade. She fears Mamie will make good on her threat to send Starla to reform school, so Starla walks to the outskirts of town, and just keeps walking. . . . If she can get to Nashville and find her momma, then all that she promised will come true: Lulu will be a star. Daddy will come to live in Nashville, too. And her family will be whole and perfect. Walking a lonely country road, Starla accepts a ride from Eula, a black woman traveling alone with a white baby. The trio embarks on a road trip that will change Starla’s life forever. She sees for the first time life as it really is—as she reaches for a dream of how it could one day be.”

I won this book through Goodread’s First Reads program which means I got the book for free and I have to disclose that when I review the book. This is cross-posted on Goodreads and the publisher’s website.

So one of my favorite books growing up was The Secret Life of Bees and this is in the same family. It is a coming of age novel with a big focus on race and mothers. The little white girl is saved by the black women around her and she realizes that race doesn’t matter when it comes to maternal love. Wonderful lesson, go white girl. I was always more interested in the black women and yet again, the black women steal the show. I was so invested in Eula that I didn’t care what happened to Starla, but I knew that Starla was some form of mental glue for Eula.

So the basic plot was pretty similar to The Secret Life of Bees (little white girl runs away and is helped by an older black woman that is wanted by the law, while the father is left searching for her. They are both on a search for her mother), but how the rest of the story unfolds is drastically different. There is a lot more intense emotionally scaring events for Starla, that just didn’t exist for Lily. Starla is almost killed, twice. Starla has someone die on top of her. Starla has the most intense adventure I have ever seen in a coming of age tale. This is clearly an adult book, but it was one that was gripping and exciting.

Starla is young enough that she is just parroting what the white women around her say, but she says some pretty racist things. While she is clearly debunked and told she is wrong by Eula, Eula is emotionally unstable and is not often a source of reliability. So is the racism really addressed? Yes and no. Once the teacher character is introduced the reader is shown that racism is bad and that black people are more than just drunks and crazy. I was actually satisfied with the representation of the black women (some crazy and some amazing) and the racist white men (some crazy and some benevolent). It allowed for a more full picture that The Help didn’t allow. So while the representation was not perfect, I had a much harder time finding fault in it.

So feminists and race activists might actually be able to read a book fully without wanting to attack it. Though there were some personal issues of mine triggered like the abuse of women used as a plot device. Why are so many women raped and abused in media outlets? I don’t get it, but at least this book showed it as a gradual process and shows an abusive relationship as a damaging thing that is hard to recognize from the inside. It should how abuse victims can get stuck. I was amazed at how well Eula’s abuse was handled and how it changed Eula’s character. Character development is something that I appreciate.

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5 out of 5 stars. I would recommend this book.

You can buy this book here.

~Isaiah

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