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By Susan Gregg Gilmore. Broadway Books. 368 pages. $16
Sunday, October 6, 2013
It appears Emmalee Bullard’s story will end before it has a chance to begin.
Quitting school at 16, she takes a job as a collar maker in the Tennewa Shirt Factory. Her father, an abusive alcoholic who finds occasional work retrieving corpses for the town undertaker, barely tolerates Emmalee’s presence in their shack in Red Chert, Tenn., and has neglected her since early childhood, when Emmalee’s mother died of cancer.
At the Tennewa Shirt Factory, Emmalee is assigned the machine next to Leona Lane, a seamstress in her 50s, who takes Emmalee under her wing and teaches her to sew collars. Paid per piece, Leona doesn’t say much and puts all of her focus into sewing as many collars as possible during her shift, but a friendship is formed nonetheless.
When Emmalee becomes pregnant at 19, Leona takes an especially personal interest in her co-worker. As fate would have it, on the eve of the day Leona and her husband are planning to rescue Emmalee and her newborn baby from their dismal living conditions, Leona and Curtis are killed when their pickup truck runs off the mountain road.
And so begins the story of “The Funeral Dress.” Taking place in rural Tennessee in 1974, Gilmore’s tale is one of the working poor, particularly women, in the blue-collar industry of that time.
The author tells the story in a captivating way, alternating between the present day of the story and flashbacks that start with Leona’s marriage to her husband, Curtis, and continuing forward until that story catches up to Emmalee’s.
As the title suggests, there is no dress in Leona’s closet suitable for her funeral. The undertaker offers to provide one from his stores, but Emmalee will have none of that; she wants to do the only thing she can for her friend, the only friend she has ever had: Emmalee will make Leona’s dress.
Gilmore breathes life into her characters. The reader is drawn to Emmalee and roots for her to overcome the desperate poverty and neglect in which she has been raised. Because of her upbringing, we want Emmalee to succeed that much more. We want her to have a chance at a better life.
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