As Effie explains when she’s asked how she can be an undertaker’s assistant, ““The dead can’t hurt you. Only the living can.” So sets the mood for this wonderfully dark, pervasive novel set amongst a strenuous time in our nation’s history. Effie Jones is a former slave living and working in New Orleans, a place as dark and mysterious as much of the mood of this novel is. Living now, as a freedwoman, Effie is navigating her new life and her return to life in the South as she works for a white undertaker who does not share her skills that she acquired from a Union soldier and is fighting the urge to rekindle her old life and the ties she lost to her own family.
While slavery is now a piece of the past, the racial tensions that are building in New Orleans are not. Effie is among many who are now living as freed people in the southern city and for many, this is not always acceptable. For Effie, there is also an overbearing sense of loss both in her identity and within her ties to her family that was lost in the upheaval of slavery. It is within her past that Effie will also find her new beginnings.
New Orleans serves as a wonderful backdrop for such a turbulent time because New Orleans is itself dark and turbulent. The city really lends itself to the morose overtones that dominate much of the novel. Together, the setting and the political battles that are igniting through the racial tensions created by the end of slavery lend to a well-charted plot and inevitable end.
The tension between white and black citizens exists throughout the book. People such as Effie are struggling to find their place in the world outside of slavery. Effie has two encounters with a charismatic state legislator named Samson Greene, and a beautiful young Creole, Adeline that slightly change her course. Up until then, Effie stayed distant from the other girls in her boarding house and had no interest in getting involved in the politics of the city. However, her chance encounters change Effie and bring her into the world of activism and politicism which leads her into her own search for the family that she had long buried in her memories.
The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore is as much a wonderfully written historical fiction piece as it is the story of one woman’s coming of age in a turbulent part of our nation’s story. The novel is a bit slow in the beginning, but once you get into the meat of the novel, you become invested in the political turmoil, the mystique of the city of New Orleans and in Effie and the characters that she meets and encounters along her own journey.
The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore is scheduled to be released on July 30, 2019, from Kensington Books with ISBN 9781496713681. This review corresponds to an advanced electronic galley that was received from the publisher in exchange for this review. To be linked to special pre-order pricing, click the link above!