Published by Broadway Books on 2013
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At just seventeen, Emmalee Bullard leaves high school for the hum of the sewing machines found in the Tennewa Shirt Factory, looking for a way to supplement the money her father struggles to bring in. Emmalee soon grows close to Leona, the seamstress who trained her, and is devastated when she is killed in a tragic car accident. Reeling from the news and stranded with a new baby, Emmalee is determined to honor Leona by sewing her a beautiful burying dress, but finds her choice met by harsh criticism from the conservative community around her.
After hearing Susan Gregg Gilmore as a guest on the Southern fiction episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, I realized that my love for the genre had been limited to the Gothic side. I had assumed novels like this would be too sweet for my taste, but thankfully I was won over by Gilmore’s discussion and encouraged to expand my horizons.
“She knew the sound of death, its tone and rhythm, as well as she did that of a popular song played over and over on the radio. At her father’s house, death never acted hesitant or shy. It came barreling out of nowhere, walking straight up to the front door and announcing itself with a bold and repetitive rap.”
The most striking thing about The Funeral Dress is how real Gilmore’s characters feel. From the first page, I was pulled into Emmalee’s life as her early moments in the Tennewa Shirt Factory are detailed and the stories of those around her established. As the novel progresses, the harsh realities of life in the small Tennessee town make it easy to feel sympathetic toward both Emmalee and Leona. Still, there are multiple dimensions to the characters Gilmore has created, which are revealed in the alternating narrative of the story and come together in a touching end.