A young woman in Appalachia battles poverty, discrimination and her own insecurity in this moving and memorable third novel from Gilmore (Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, 2008, etc.).
In 1974, when Emmalee Bullard gets a job sewing collars at the Tennewa shirt factory, the 16-year-old begins the escape from the miserable poverty in which she was raised. After her mother died years ago, her care fell to her father, Nolan, a handsome, angry drunkard who barely kept her fed or clothed (her schoolteacher took to bathing her in the janitor’s closet). At Tennewa, she is seated next to Leona, a secretive woman, broken from the death of her baby boy years ago. Childless, Leona and Curtis still live in the starter trailer they bought as newlyweds; she takes in extra sewing, and he devotes his life to their church. Leona is hard, but she is the closest thing Emmalee has had to mothering care in years, and so, when, three years later, Emmalee has a baby she calls Kelly Faye, Leona invites them to live at the trailer. Tragedy strikes the day before they’re to move in: Curtis and Leona are killed in a car accident. The funeral director allows Emmalee to sew Leona’s burying dress, so she drops Kelly Faye off at her uncle’s (his childless wife can’t wait to get her hands on the baby) and goes to the trailer to work on Leona’s dress. There, she sees the room Leona prepared: a bed and a crib, baby toys and books, small sweet clothes Leona sewed herself. Heartbroken, Emmalee sews the dress out of red damask and then becomes ill. When she goes to retrieve Kelly Faye, her uncle refuses to give her back, claiming the baby would be better off with them and all they can offer. Shunned by the community, Emmalee’s not sure she’s fit to be a mother, but then a surprising thing happens—the women of Tennewa begin to stand behind her.
A revelatory novel that offers an evocative account of the lives of Appalachian working women.