When I was a young girl I read Johanna Spyri's Heidi. I couldn't stop crying after I read the last page, not because it ended sadly but because there was no more. I was so deeply enmeshed in the lives of the characters I couldn't accept that, for me, their lives ended with this story.
The Undertaker's Assistant, the second novel by author Amanda Skenandore, affected me in precisely the same way. I could barely force myself to put the book down and go to bed. I rushed back to the pages as soon as I arose each morning. I wept copious tears when I read the last page. I was so thoroughly involved in the lives, emotions, successes and failures of each character in this story it felt as if I was tearing off skin to let them go.
Ms. Skenandore has succeeded in penning yet another book that should be a best seller by any yardstick that includes literary fiction. Her writing is so steeped with honesty, so well researched, and so poignantly laid upon the page as to elevate the reader to a new level of understanding, sympathy, empathy and intellect.
The main character, Effie, and all the auxiliary characters will be forever inscribed upon my mind and indeed, my very soul. This author succeeds in framing every scene with words that evoke every sense from sounds to smells to emotions and everything in-between. You cannot read this book without being carried back in time to another place; you cannot go on this journey without experiencing the wounds our society inflicted on so many and is still inflicting, without remorse, on the descendants of the people these characters are built upon.
The book is so relevant to the here and now of conversations going on in our current political climate, the upcoming election, the pain filled and hurtful rantings of those without empathy for the suffering of other human beings.
I loved this author's first book, Between Earth and Sky, that dealt so deftly with the travesty of assimilation of the Native American population via Indian Boarding Schools, for it's sensitive portrayal of the human cost of "helping" the "other" in society through the tender and ill-fated romance of the main characters. This book, The Undertaker's Assistant, opened my eyes to a period of history I knew little about, Reconstruction after the Civil War. Effie and Samson and Tom and Adeline and Jonesy and so many others spread across this period of history in such a natural and believable way under Ms. Skenandore's able pen. Their lives were fraught with trauma, rising above their beginnings, falling into easy and strangling relationships without a thought, the everyday carrying on of life's routines, successes, disappointments, human weaknesses and human strengths. The longing to know who we are, where we came from and where we are going was upfront and present throughout the story. Feelings of emptiness, not fitting in, falling deeply and inexplicably in love, entitlement, prestige, debasement and as many others as you can conjure are all present and accounted for. This is a book that will make you feel and make you think. It will expand your grasp of a period in history that continues to trouble us today. I hope it will make you feel something you haven't felt before.
I know this author is a nurse, but her grasp of what an Undertaker does blew the doors off. What detailed explanations and descriptions, what a nuanced portrayal of the need for detachment, what wonderful skill in taking the reader into an unseemly experience and actually making us watch with sensitivity. This type of thing makes me squeamish but the author brought me into this part of the story with the necessary detachment to avoid those feelings. She's good.
A negative? Perhaps for me, because I don't speak French, the frequent use of french phrases interrupted my thoughts and feelings from time to time as I tried to decipher the author's intent or meaning. And vocabulary unique to the time forced me to stop and look up a word much more often than I am used to. I think I have a good vocabulary and a good education until I read something by Amanda Skenandore! I can't wait for her next book.
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