The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore
Released: September 24, 2013
Reviewed by Tori
Emmalee Bullard dropped out of school to begin work at the Tennewa Shirt Factory at age sixteen when her father refused to take her to school anymore and demanded she find a job. She is paired with Leona Lane, a long time employee, whose own life could have mirrored Emmalee’s but for some of the decisions she made. Leona teaches Emmalee everything she knows about sewing and soon a friendship is borne between the older woman and this younger girl. When Emmalee gets pregnant by a local boy three years later, Leona sees Emmalee struggling to be mother and father to her baby all the while having no one to help her. She offers Emmalee the chance to get out from underneath her father’s thumb by asking her to come live with her and her husband. Leona lost her own son years ago and was unable to have anymore. Leona knows Emmalee could be a good wonderful mother if she is just given the chance and the baby would give Leona another chance at love.
When an accident claims Leona and her husband’s life, Emmalee finds herself adrift again with no relief in sight. Her baby’s father is unable and unwilling to help her; a victim of his family’s ambitions. Disappointed by the life she could have had before Leona died, Emmalee wants to honor Leona in the only way she knows how. She wants to make Leona’s funeral dress. While some of the town rebels against the idea, they don’t feel an unmarried mother should have that right, the funeral director gives her the chance. Using some fabric Emmalee finds in Leona’s home, Emmalee begins the dress, pouring her heart and soul into it’s making. Each stitch holds a dream, a prayer, and a hope for a chance to do right in her life for her daughter. When the town divides on whether Emmalee should be allowed to keep her baby, Emmalee finds she has more friends then she knew and a wall of courage that holds true as she begins the fight to keep her daughter.
Set in the hollers of the Tennessee Appalachian Mountains, The Funeral Dress tells the story of a young woman born into poverty and her struggle to rise out of it despite the ties that bind her. Told in an gentle engaging manner, Ms Gilmore paints a compelling portrait of life and poverty in small southern town during the 1970’s. Two female voices tell the story, effectively showcasing the similarities and differences between the women whose lives begin to intertwine from their first meeting. Using sewing as the base to hold the varied storylines together, we see the traditions and comradely that grew between women who worked in the textile factories. They were friends, enemies, confidants, and gossips. They built a family amongst themselves whose ties often went deeper than those they had with their husbands.
Though the story starts out slow, it gradually lulls you with its haunting verse and straightforward telling. Heavily character driven, the alternating points of view offer background information as Emmalee tells her story in the present and Leona tells her story in the past-leading up to to the point of her death. We see the circumstances that led to Emmalee and Leona becoming more than just fellow employees. We see the gifts of strength, courage, and love that Leona leaves with Emmalee after her death. Religion, prejudice, judgment, and compassion all swirl together as the boundaries of family are expanded upon and Emmalee learns that family can be composed of more than just those of her blood.
The ending is introspective when Emmales is offered another chance from an unlikely source to prove to the community and herself that she is more than able to care for her child. Though we aren’t left with any concrete answers to the various unanswered questions that circled throughout the story, we are left with the feeling that Emmalee has the tools and the know how to carve out a life for herself beyond the confines she grew up in. I would have enjoyed seeing more interaction with her child’s father and the grandparents. There was a subtle drawing of lines there that leaves you feeling there is much more to the story to come. Part of me hopes Ms. Gilmore revisits Emmalee’s life and yet another part is satisfied with the way she leaves it, allowing the readers to provide their own ending.
Either way, Ms. Gilmore has penned a lovely tale of small town southern fiction that will stay with you long after you reach the end.