I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield

This intimate autobiographical portrait of not just of a girl who lives above the funeral home her father Frank Mayfield runs, but of a broken family and a time and place in history, the 1960s and 1970s when things begin to change in the South, even if the views are harder to change.  In 1959, Frank Mayfield moved his family, wife Lily Tate, son Thomas the peacemaker, daughter Evelyn an undiagnosed manic depressive, and second daughter Kate, to Jubilee, Kentucky from the mountains of Western Kentucky to the border of Tennessee.  He finds a large house to set up his business on the bottom floors and his home on the second and third floors.  He installs multiple phones so he does not miss a single death.  The words, "There is a body", invoke a bit of dread in the family, especially Lily Tate who may have planned a bridge club luncheon, that she's using to find a place in society, and then have to cancel it.  For the children, it means going upstairs and being quiet and not seen.  But that does not mean that Kate does not sneak looks over the banister to see the way her father quietly orchestrates a funeral with only a mere look or small lift of the hands to his employees or the mourners.  Frank is like a maestro in his work.

The first trouble comes when two men from oldest families in the county come to visit him and ask why he has not bought too many concrete vaults (which surrounds the casket in the earth) from them.  He says they leak and will not sell people a shoddy product.  There is another white funeral home in town and they have already sent  business his way and now they have made it a mission of theirs to shut Frank down.  It is the Southern good-'ol-boys network and it is quite effective.  Even though Frank has a  young man who lives in the county to help bring in business from that area. 

Help comes in a surprising place.  There were no ambulances back then.  If you could not get yourself to the hospital, you called the funeral home to come and get you.  Frank had a separate vehicle for that, and unlike his competition, does not charge for the service.  One night, Miss Agnes, a spinster who lives in the largest and oldest house in town and owns the only fertilizer dealership in Kentucky, has hurt herself and calls Frank.  The other funeral director has been sending patients roses to get their business, but all Frank can afford is red carnations, which happen to be Miss Agnes's favorite flower.  Her story is incredible in how she was able to go from a wealthy family in town, until her father dies, leaving her in debt, to being very rich with her own business, a rarity in those times.  She shuns those who turned their backs on her when her fortunes changed, so her and Frank are foes of the same people and she decides to help him.  Miss Agnes is a delightfully eccentric Southern Woman who does things her own way.

Kate's mother gives birth to another child, a girl named Jemma.  Her mother is the strict disciplinarian, something she picked up from her own harsh childhood.  Her father, Kate would find, is a flawed man.  He has a scar on his stomach from the World War II, where he almost died.  It was his brother's dream to open up a funeral home, but he died during the war.  The torments from the war haunt him and he becomes a man who is not always a good husband or father.

There is also the specter of race.  Belle, their black housekeeper, helps raise the kids and Kate wonders why it is ok to sit in Belle's lap at home, but she cannot sit next to her in a theatre.  When black students begin to finally arrive in her middle school, she goes out with one for a while.  When both races find out, she is threatened by a group of black girls after school, and her parents who tell her it could end her father's business, which it would.  Oddly, Frank sometimes helps the only colored funeral director with embalming or with ordering things if need be, but he still does not seem to think of them as being equal. 

While this book offers a glimpse inside of the old way funeral homes worked, it is through the eyes of a child, who basically never goes into the embalming room or see but glimpses of the pageantry of the funerals.  This book looks at a family that is far from perfect, at a dangerous time in the South, a different world all on its own, and small town politics and prejudices.  Kate loves her family, but comes to realize that she is not meant to stay in Jubilee, but for a wider world in which to explore life.  There are many who help her see this, even if her family cannot.

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