Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Funeral Dress

By Susan Gregg Gilmore
Broadway Books (Random House), 356 pgs
Submitted by the publisher
Rating: 3

The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore is pornographic. No, not sexually pornographic. This is Appalachia poverty porn. I felt like a voyeur reading this one, almost like watching a train wreck. It's already hideous and only going to get worse but you can't tear your gaze from imminent catastrophe. Is our gaze prurient? I felt like a tourist confronting Calcutta for the first time. Does the mere fact of bearing witness obligate us to action? Is there anything "mere" about witnessing? Should the witnessing compel us to action? If so, what sort of action?

Emmalee Bullard is nineteen, a high school dropout, seamstress (she makes collars) at the local shirt factory, virtual orphan, and new single mother of infant daughter, Kelly Faye. Emmalee's mother died of cancer when she was very young so she lives with her father, Nolan Bullard, in a two-room "house" (no plumbing, no running water, tar paper for walls and a roof with more holes than a cheese grater) in a holler of eastern Tennessee known as Red Chert. It is 1974. Nolan is ninety-three percent useless. He is physically and emotionally abusive, a drunk, and makes a habit of disappearing for days on end.

There is one point of light in all of this bleakness. An older woman at the shirt factory, Leona Lane, has befriended Emmalee. Leona knows that without intervention the infant will not live and Emmalee might as well not. So she talks to her husband Curtis (a saint, I'm pretty sure) and they plan to collect Emmalee and her baby from Red Chert and bring them to live in their trailer house on the top of Old Lick mountain. The trailer may sway like a drunk in a high wind but no drunks live there, which is a plus. Also, heat. Winter is moving in fast. The night before the Lanes are going to rescue Emmalee and her baby their pickup is forced off a narrow, twisty mountain road by a logging semi and both Lanes are dead on impact.

Emmalee hears the news the next day when Nolan is called out by Mr. Fulton, the funeral home director, to retrieve the bodies. She determines to sew Leona's funeral dress because nothing in Leona's closet or at the funeral home is special enough for the woman who was going to save her life. This seemingly simple gesture unleashes the following in the community: gossip, contempt, the identity of Kelly Faye's father, Baptists, fear, preachers, bigotry, betrayal, fury, social workers, envy, the Church of Christ, pride, greed, doctors, assault, battery, kidnapping, the sheriff, and I'm positive I'm overlooking several other factors. It all shakes out in the end but not in any way you might suspect. I'd like to commend the author for not going after an all-tied-up-in-a-bow-happily-ever-after-assured conclusion. In fact, the conclusion is satisfying but not actually a conclusion. See?

Susan Gregg Gilmore
The Funeral Dress is Susan Gregg Gilmore's third book. She has written for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Her first novel, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queenwas a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) 2009 Book Award Nominee. Her second novel, The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, was named a 2010 SIBA Summer OKRA Pick.

So what's the take-away? Two things:

1) In answer to the ignorant question "Why doesn't she just leave?" please see page 319, paragraph two, in which Emmalee first steps foot in the Cullen Church of Christ:
The walls were a creamy white, and the windows were clear, not all different colors like they were at the Baptist and Methodist churches in Cullen. Emmalee darted like a field mouse trying to find cover. She longed to be back in Red Chert, hugged tight there at the mountain's base. At least there she understood the landscape. (emphasis added)
2) Mothering is essential. Emmalee Bullard needed mothering desperately, for herself and so that she would know how to mother Kelly Faye. Also, that mothering is not only acquired from mothers. Fathers can do it. Not Nolan Bullard, but human fathers can do it. Friends can do the mothering. From whom you get your mothering doesn't matter. What matters is that you get it.

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