Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore

If you've read my blog for a while or visited my "About" section, you know that southern literature has my heart. Although much of what I read lately is YA, education-related, mystery series books, or women's fiction for SheReads, southern lit is still near and dear to me. So I jumped at the chance to read Chattanooga author Susan Gregg Gilmore's latest novel The Funeral Dress.

This novel, y'all, is not for the faint of heart. If you can't stand a good, long cry, this isn't the book for you. I tweeted the other day that I had cried my way through the book, and I wasn't kidding. Once you get over the first little bit of hormone-adjustment that comes after having a baby (as I did just over a year ago), the baby's first year of life isn't exactly a time for tears. You simply don't have time for that. So I can't remember the last time I had a good cry -- until this book. It's characters turned me inside out. My baby girl just turned one, and something about this novel and that combination made my heart hurt. In a good way.

The Funeral Dress begins in 1970s Dunlap, Tennessee -- renamed Cullen, Tennessee, for Gilmore's literary purposes. Most of the work than can be found for women in this small valley town is at the Tennewa garment factory, and Emmalee Bullard gets hired on at the tender age of sixteen. She doesn't have any experience sewing, but the lady in the next seat over, Leona Lane, does. For whatever reason, this tough cookie takes Emmalee under her wing, showing her the ropes both at the machine and navigating the waters of Tennewa's complicated social scene.

For the first time in her life, Emmalee has a place that's solely hers. Not her mama's, long dead from an illness her father blames on Emmalee, or her father's, a mean drunk who acts as the king of their tiny, rundown shack. When Emmalee turns up pregnant with a baby of her own after a brief affair with a boy out of her league, she struggles to find a way out of Red Chert holler and away from her father's meanness. Leona offers her a way out, and Emmalee jumps at the chance to escape. However, life hasn't had a history of being easy on Emmalee, and it isn't about to start now.

When Emmalee's one chance out of her father's house and her only chance to give motherhood a real try disappears, she makes a decision that she isn't going to let fate decide what happens to her. Instead, she's going to stand up and make her own destiny.

Emmalee's story touched my heart in many ways -- as a new mother, I identified with her struggle to feed her baby, to heed the baby's cries, to reconcile the end of her previous independence. As the granddaughter of a garment factory worker, I considered my Granny Mullins's back-breaking work at a sewing machine. As a Tennessean living less than an hour from the story's setting, I understood the deep-rooted struggles of the townspeople living in an Appalachian wilderness. It touched me so much, that (in the midst of tears), I almost gave up. It was almost too true a fictional story for me to keep reading. But I did, and you should. The ending is worth all the crying.

Related Links:
Susan Gregg Gilmore's website
Crown Publishing's feature "Susan Gregg Gilmore on Writing The Funeral Dress"
Nashville Scene's book review "Susan Gregg Gilmore's thrid novel The Funeral Dress imagines the struggles of a young Tennessee seamstress: Making Ends Meet With Every Single Stitch"
SheReads's feature "Tell Me Something True: A Visit with Susan Gregg Gilmore"

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