I received an advance copy of Call Your Daughter Home through NetGalley and Park Row in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.
Labeling a book ‘historical fiction’ will draw me in every time. There’s really no better hook if you want me to read your book. That being said, not all historical fictions are created equal and sometimes you have to read a handful of absolutely meh ones to find the proverbial diamonds.
Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera might not quite achieve Diamond Status but it’s definitely a gem.
Set in the 1924, only a few years before The Great Depression, the novel follows three women living in rural South Carolina. The women are unique and very different from each other – Annie is well-off elderly white woman with more skeletons in her family closet than even she knows, Retta is an older black woman who was one of the first in her family born free – though she is met with skepticism by blacks and whites alike because she works for Annie, and Gertrude is an impoverished white woman with four young daughters and the most abusive husband I’ve ever encountered in fiction. They are connected – Retta working for Annie just as Retta’s mother did before her, Retta was pregnant at the same time Gertrude’s mother was, and Gertrude needing both Annie and Retta’s help if she and her daughters will survive.
A novel that begins with a murder, a carefully orchestrated murder involving the participation of an alligator to erase the evidence, is bound to be dark.
And Call Your Daughter Home is dark. It’s dark in a real way, one that is easy to imagine in a rural place when the world is moving on from one way of life and the inhabitants there are struggling to keep up. Keeping up is a daily battle and when being alive is a daily battle, it can be hard to find light.
Over the course of the story, should you choose to challenge yourself and read it – as you should, you will encounter spousal abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, murder, pedophilia, racism, suicide, teen pregnancy, mental illness, alcoholism, and marginalization. These things could be called trigger warnings, I suppose, but it also doesn’t take long to realize that, in the setting of Call Your Daughter Home, these things would have been and were real, rampant, and constant.
Remember, going in, that the story is set in rural South Carolina in 1924. Poverty was a way of life for people of all races, and poverty can breed desperation and violence. Jim Crow laws were in effect and there was a clear distinction between whites and blacks in the South at the time. The cotton crops had just been decimated and the people who had only just begun to rebuild after the Civil War were brought down again, this time by things they could not control. Girls married young because it was their only option and because their parents decided they should. The things in Deb Spera’s book were real, they were history. That makes it all the more important that her story be read now.