The Funeral Dress

Written by Susan Gregg Gilmore
Review by Arleigh Johnson

Spanning three decades in the mid-20th century, this story follows two women from a small mountain town in Tennessee who work side-by-side in a sewing factory. Leona Lane, middle-aged and childless, grudgingly helps the newly hired teenager, Emmalee Bullard, with the fast-paced and competitive environment of the quota-based production business.

Soon after, Emmalee gives birth to a fragile baby girl and carries the stigma of an unmarried, single mother. Raised by an abusive father, she accepts an offer from Leona of a place in her home, but tragedy strikes on the eve of her flight, and instead of traveling to Leona’s house for sanctuary, Emmalee finds herself searching for a funeral dress for her beloved friend. With nothing suitable in Leona’s closet, Emmalee decides to make her dress, though very few people in the community support the endeavor of the outcast young mother.

Told in a raw, poignant voice, this is a moving story of compassion in unexpected places. Life in a small, Southern town, where your worth is determined by your family name, isn’t kind to the extremely poor and motherless Emmalee. When faced with threats of having her daughter taken away, Emmalee discovers the loyalty and friendship of the factory workers may be her saving grace. As Leona’s story unravels gradually through flashback chapters, an understanding is brought to light that will determine the very future of Emmalee and her daughter.

This novel depicts the bleak reality of poverty and its victims, detailing the life of an unfortunate girl left to sift for herself without even basic necessities. Religion, social status and domestic disputes mesh together to create the remarkable journey of two women thrown together commonly enough, but who find themselves through one another.