Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Book Review: The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore

Emmalee is living a hard life. She's living in an unheated shack with her drunken, abusive father, barely getting enough food to eat. She drops out of high school and gets a job sewing collars at the local dress factory where the difficult older seamstress who sits next to her and trains her, Leona, also eventually befriends her. When Emmalee ends up pregnant, Leona offers that she and her baby can move into Leona's trailer with her and her husband. But the night before Emmalee and the baby are to move, tragedy strikes and everything changes. Can Emmalee find some hope somewhere in the mess of her life, and gain the inspiration and hope she needs to struggle on?

While the book seems like Emmalee's story, every other chapter is Leona's, taking her from a young bride to a bitter middle-aged woman, seeing her own dreams fade and die. Personally, I identified more with Leona's story than with Emmalee's. Perhaps it's because Leona's held so much hope at one point, that her life really could be bigger and better than where she'd come from. Whereas poor Emmalee has so many obstacles and burdens that her only hope is just simple survival. Without a hand up from the outside, her life does not hold hope for improvement.

But that helping hand does come, and then when it is wrenched away, Emmalee clings to that glimpse of hope she'd never dreamed of. I do want her to succeed--to prove Leona right and to fulfill Leona's dreams even is she can't. I loved the language and the details of the era (it mostly takes place in the 1974s with flashbacks to Leona's young life in the 1950s). It's more unusual in Southern literature to see the poorer parts of society portrayed, and yet they were not only prevalent and vital, but I would venture to say in this time, they may have even been dominant. This takes place on a mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and as I now live in North Carolina where the clothing mills were such an overwhelming presence in the economy until just a decade or so ago, I understand better how a one-shop town operates. The language and the details felt so authentic and yet effortless. I couldn't put the book down and found myself thinking about it when I couldn't be reading it. It was a fast and easy read, even though the subject matter isn't terribly easy. The poor parts of the South (I was picturing Dolly Parton's youth or Loretta Lynn's) don't get much literary love, but it was worth the wait!

I should also mention how cool the cover is. You can't see on this image but it has copper foil, and also it has a texture that feels like velvet. I can't stop petting it!

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

The cover is BEAUTIFUL...it pulled me in from the start.

The story is BEAUTIFUL too. Sad, but beautiful.

I really liked the book.

THANKS for your great post.

I agree with you...I was thinking about the book even when I wasn't reading.

Have a great rest of the week.

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