Looking for a good read for a book club ? The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore includes a reading guide of discussion questions, but the author suggests to wait until you finish the book before reading the guide. I agree! The story will surprise you as it unfolds and reading ahead would spoil it.
The story takes place in Southern Appalachia where sixteen year old Emmalee, the poorest of the poor, works sewing collars in a shirt factory in the 1970s. The factory hums with laughter, gossip and the sound of three hundred sewing machines. Leona Lane teaches Emmalee how to make her quota of collars, embroider a perfect stem stitch, and how to rip a seam apart and put it back together.
In the midst of the production work, Emmalee gives birth to a baby, right on the factory floor. Without support from her father or the father of the baby, the teen has no place to live. Leona and her husband set aside a room for the unwed mother and newborn in their tiny trailer, but a horrible accident changes everything.
Gilmore captures the reader’s interest at the beginning of the book with the death of a main character. From there she works backward, filling in the pieces. Community, self-discovery and motherhood are themes that materialize. Little by little, Emmalee is transformed. She makes wooden crosses to commemorate the dead in her community, entwining love, loss and creativity. Just after she gives birth, she embellishes a funeral dress, sewn as an act of devotion for the deceased.
The women in The Funeral Dress share their joys and sorrows. They help one another even though their wages are meager. Community spirit helps them survive.
The Prayer Box by Lisa Wingate, is another book about a struggling young mother who finds support in her community. It's set on Hatteras Island, North Carolina. Both books are available at the Virginia Beach Public Library.