BY AMANDA SKENANDORE
Publication Date: July 30, 2019
Kensington Publishing Corp.
eBook & Paperback; 304 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Set during Reconstruction-era New Orleans, and with an extraordinary and unforgettable heroine at its heart, The Undertaker’s Assistant is a powerful story of human resilience–and of the unlikely bonds that hold fast even in our darkest moments.
“The dead can’t hurt you. Only the living can.”Effie Jones, a former slave who escaped to the Union side as a child, knows the truth of her words. Taken in by an army surgeon and his wife during the War, she learned to read and write, to tolerate the sight of blood and broken bodies–and to forget what is too painful to bear. Now a young freedwoman, she has returned south to New Orleans and earns her living as an embalmer, her steady hand and skillful incisions compensating for her white employer’s shortcomings.
Tall and serious, Effie keeps her distance from the other girls in her boarding house, holding tight to the satisfaction she finds in her work. But despite her reticence, two encounters–with a charismatic state legislator named Samson Greene, and a beautiful young Creole, Adeline–introduce her to new worlds of protests and activism, of soirees and social ambition. Effie decides to seek out the past she has blocked from her memory and try to trace her kin. As her hopes are tested by betrayal, and New Orleans grapples with violence and growing racial turmoil, Effie faces loss and heartache, but also a chance to finally find her place . . .
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Effie Jones was born a slave before she escaped to Union lines where she was taken in by an army surgeon and taught the trade of embalming as the ward of the surgeon and his wife. Now, ten years after the war Effie is compelled to leave the only home she remembers and travels to New Orleans. Effie knows that there might not be many opportunities for a young freedwoman, but she takes a chance by knocking on the door of Mr. Whitmark, the local Undertaker and a former Union soldier. Mr. Whitmark takes Effie on and while improving the shop, Effie tries to find where she fits in. Effie quickly falls for the orator and state legislator Samson Greene and becomes involved in his political committee fighting for rights. Effie also finds an unlikely friend in Adeline, a Creole who teaches Effie social graces in return for help with her tricks of the spiritual trade. However, Effie is looking for more than friendship and love, she is looking for what she forgot before she was found in the Union camp, a family to miss her when she is gone. The answers Effie is looking for might be closer than she thinks.
Thoughtful and distinctive, The Undertaker's Assistant is a historical fiction novel of Reconstruction era south that intelligently weaves together the experiences of a freedwoman and a woman on a journey of self discovery. I was easily able to connect with Effie's character and the turbulent but exciting times in Reconstruction-era Louisiana. Effie also shows the unique lens Undertaker and the very well researched practice of embalming. The impact of the Civil War left it's mark on more than just the freed slaves and the soldiers. Effie's employer, Mr. Whitmark, a southerner who fought for the Union is treated as an outcast even though the Union won. Adeline is a Creole whose family has been hit by the economic downturn. There is also Sampson Greene who has found his calling in helping others to rise above and using his freedom for political action. With this diverse cross-section of people in one place, I can feel the tension rising over the course of the story. In addition to the setting, Effie's search for herself and ties to her own culture drive a second story line. Effie's quest to discover her roots and the people from her past was heartfelt and emotional. Throughout the story there is a foreboding foreshadowing that something traumatic has happened in Effie's past, I enjoyed the unraveling of the mystery within Effie's mind as her travels revealed hidden memories locked in her mind.
This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
Amanda Skenandore is a historical fiction writer and registered nurse. Between Earth and Sky was her first novel. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Readers can visit her website at www.amandaskenandore.com.
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