“Heavyset women with thick, flabby arms and weathered skin sat in perfect rows next to younger girls with slender frames and long hair clipped behind their heads,” writes Susan Gregg Gilmore in her new novel, The Funeral Dress. “Concentrating on the fabric streaming through their hands, they looked almost dwarfed in the large space. Their bodies nearly touched as they hunched in front of their machines, trying to make ends meet with every single stitch.” It’s 1974 at the Tennewa Shirt Factory in Cullen, Tennessee, and sixteen-year-old Emmalee Bullard has come looking for work.
Emmalee is a sad and solitary child whose mother’s death eleven years earlier had prompted her to begin making small crosses out of twigs and affixing them to a dead tree not far from her home in nearby Red Chert. She fashions a cross whenever someone in her community dies, whether she knows the person or not, “somehow convinced that with each one she kept a tiny bit of the person” with her, writes Gilmore. “Even the dead she didn’t know, she was desperate to keep close for a time, preferring to believe that this ever-changing family of angels watched out for her.” Emmalee’s bleak existence offers little care or comfort. Home is a leaky shack without electricity or indoor plumbing, and her father, Nolan, is an abusive alcoholic: “Sometimes Emmalee wished he would go ahead and wrap his hands around her neck and choke the breath right out of her, instead of dragging her through this life slow and painful.”
Emmalee gets the job at Tennewa and begins her apprenticeship among the other employees, mostly women—pocket makers, pattern setters, bottom hemmers, collar makers. She is assigned to make collars, and she learns from the best, Leona Lane, a fast and no-nonsense seamstress who is nevertheless kind to Emmalee, keeping her out of trouble in the fast-paced, competitive atmosphere of the sewing room. The factory forms its own community, and the women with whom Emmalee works, especially Leona, become a kind of surrogate family.
Three years later, Emmalee has had a baby—Kelly Faye—and has no choice but to leave her job to care for her. The story continues through a series of flashbacks and shifts in perspective, from Emmalee to Leona, examining Emmalee’s desperate circumstances as she tries to raise her daughter under harsh and lonely conditions, and Leona’s past, including the baby she lost herself. Emmalee, who won’t tell Nolan who Kelly Faye’s father is, longs to leave Red Chert and find a better future. Then her plans are upended by a sudden tragedy.
With The Funeral Dress, Gilmore—a former Nashville resident who now lives in Chattanooga—does her finest work to date, perfectly capturing the rhythm and music of the small-town Southern vernacular. Walls are painted “the color of butter beans not quite ready to pick.” A man’s charm “had run thin like his hair.” A woman wonders why anyone would want to live on top of a mountain so high “it’s twenty minutes farther to everywhere but heaven.” This is a simple, quiet story about family ties, life’s disappointments, the daily struggle it takes to persevere, and the ways women support one another when times are tough, especially in the hard work of child-rearing.
It’s also a story about gifts: those Emmalee discovers in herself and those—like compassion and comfort—that her pain unexpectedly reveals in others. The circumstances in which Gilmore’s characters find themselves are often punishing, and it takes a great deal of hope for them to see each day through. Leona has a ritual she practices every time she sees a cardinal: “A redbird rapped at the trailer’s far window, but it flitted off before Leona could blow a kiss and wish for something better,” Gilmore writes. “‘Maybe,” she thinks, “something better is already on its way.”