Book Club Guide
Enhance your book club experience with these discussion questions, insider information, author interview, and recipe suggestions.
All nine-year-old spitfire Starla Claudelle yearned for was her mother and a secure, loving family. Finding them would take her on the adventure of a lifetime.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. By telling the story from Starla’s point of view, we get to look at the South in 1963 through the eyes of a child. Why do you think the author chose a child narrator? What do you think this adds to the story? How do you think the book would be different if it were told from the perspective of someone like Eula or Lulu?
2. We see different sides of Mamie’s character throughout the novel. Do you think her changes are manufactured for her own benefit? Or are they genuine? Which moment convinced you one way or the other?
3. Secrets permeate the plot of the novel. As a child narrator, Starla has many secrets kept from her. Some secrets are to protect her, while others are simply too painful to share. Name a few of these secrets. Was the secret justified or would it have been better to reveal it earlier?
4. Eula claims that ultimately Wallace’s downfall is his pride. Do you agree? Do you think that this is true or that Wallace is a victim of his circumstances? Do you sympathize with him at all?
5. After leaving Wallace behind and travelling with Starla, we see Eula beginning to find herself. Do you think that there’s a specific moment when that happens?
6. Eula and Starla are both products of dysfunctional families. How different or similar are their coping mechanisms for dealing with their families? In what way do they influence each other as they grow stronger?
7. From the beginning of the novel, Starla questions the implications of the religious beliefs that she sees practiced around her. How do Starla’s thoughts on religion evolve as she meets characters such as Eula and Miss Cyrena? Do you think she comes to a conclusion by the end of her journey?
8. In Miss Cyrena’s neighborhood, Starla experiences first-hand the harsh reality of discrimination. How does her experience there change her and affect her character? She’s even called a “polar bear.” How does this affect her throughout the rest of the book?
9. Miss Cyrena claims that people never actually change, we just change our perception of them. To what degree do you think this is true? Does it apply to Wallace? Lulu? Mamie?
10. The carnival is a major recurring theme throughout the novel: Eula’s spirit is broken when her cousin is beaten and Starla faces her biggest adversary (the Jenkins brothers). What is it about this setting that you think is integral to these scenes?
11. Discuss the interplay of race and class. Mamie is vehemently against Black equality, possibly because of her low social standing. This is similar to the Jenkins brothers. How do these obstacles overlap?
12. When they make a pie crust together, Eula warns Starla against “working the dough” too much. How do you think this is symbolic of Eula’s philosophy in general? What does this teach Starla?
13. Eula tells Starla that everyone is born with many gifts, but it is up to them to discover them. What are some gifts that Eula and Starla discover during their journey? Why do you think Eula is so determined to help Starla find her gifts?
14. At the end of the story, Starla’s father lives up to her dreams, but her mother disappoints her. How did you feel about each of them at the end of the story?
15. If this novel were a movie, who do you imagine would play Starla and Eula?
From the Desk of the Author
Starla Claudelle, the main character for Whistling Past the Graveyard, had been whispering in my ear for months before I finally allowed her to tell her story. I was working on another novel at the time, and I leave no novel unfinished—until now. Starla was so stubborn and intent on doing what she thought was right that I finally relented, closed the file of my half-finished novel (a bit of a relief actually, as it was giving me fits—humm, I wonder if that was Starla’s doing too?) and started working on WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD. So began an adventure for both novelist and character. As a novelist, I was embarking on a project unlike any I’d previously written. There was no guarantee any publisher would want to publish it. And yet, it was clear to me from the beginning, Starla was going to tell her story in her own way. It turned out that to be a very good thing that I stopped being my own stubborn self and let Starla have her way.
Of course the most obvious choice is Eula’s Famous Chess Pie, very southern, very sweet.
First make note of Eula’s hints for a chess pie:
Always use ice water to mix the crust. Lard is much better than fancy new canned shortenings. Make sure your shortening is chilled.
Once the pastry is in the pan, brush it with egg white and then prick the bottom in several places. Bake in a hot oven (425 degrees) for 4-5 minutes. This helps keep the crust from getting soggy when baking the full pie.
Add a tablespoon of lemon zest and a few drops of lemon juice in the mixing to cut the sweetness.
Eula’s Famous Chess Pie Recipe
2 cups flour
8 tablespoons butter, or 2/3 cup shortening (lard or Crisco)
¼ teaspoon salt for butter, 1 teaspoon for shortening
4-7 tablespoons ice water
Cut shortening into flour and salt until shortening the size of small peas. Sprinkle ice water in a little at a time, tossing and kneading until will hold together in a ball. Roll out. Place in 9 inch pie pan, crimp edges. Now use Eula’s tip, egg white and prebake this crust for 4-5 minutes in hot (425 degree) oven. Cool.
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons yellow corn meal
2 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter, very soft but not melted
¼ cup whole milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon white vinegar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
In bowl, whisk eggs (and lemon zest and juice if using).
Combine sugar and butter. Add flour, salt, milk, vanilla and vinegar. Stir until well blended. Gently fold in corn meal. Add eggs.
Pour into pastry shell.
Bake at 350 degrees for 50-55 minutes. Eula says to shield edges of crust with aluminum foil after 10 minutes to prevent over browning. Cool completely before serving.
I always have what I call the “snack of the book,” something I indulge in beyond reason during deadline. For WPTG it was puff corn snacks. I even did a not-so-scientific study of different brands.
Click here for my blog about it.
This was an awesome surprise. My mom wanted me to sign books on the front porch of my childhood home. When I arrived she and my sister and a life-long friend had created a real “WPTG Event.” In addition to the banners, Eula’s grip and iron skillet, mini pies, an antique truck (in much better shape than Eula’s) they had my characters there as well! No one wanted to play Mamie, go figure.