Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Undertaker's Assistant by Amanda Skenandore, an original look at Reconstruction-era New Orleans

With her second historical novel, Amanda Skenandore taps into society during the politically troubled Reconstruction years in New Orleans, where formerly enslaved people organized political meetings and mingled with Creoles of mixed race.

Into this environment comes Euphemia “Effie” Jones, a freedwoman in an unusual profession: she embalms the dead alongside her white employer, Mr. Whitmark, a former army colonel who had fought for the North. In reality, Effie knows the job as well as he does, often finding herself taking over tasks since his hands shake after years of too much drinking.

Having been trained in her profession by the white colonel from Indiana who’d taken her in after her escape from slavery as a child, Effie has returned home in search of the personal past she can’t remember. Alongside the uphill battle of her quest, she befriends, to her surprise, several people who challenge her stoic outlook, including Samson Greene, a handsome Black state representative, and Adeline, a beautiful upper-class Creole who cares for her mother after falling on hard times.

In a different writer’s hands, Effie could have been an unsympathetic figure. More comfortable with the dead than the living, Effie closely guards her emotions, and she can be frank to the point of discomfort. She discusses her career too readily at social gatherings, for instance, and doesn’t hesitate to inform the other women from her boardinghouse that they’ve been taken in by a fraud. (They don’t react well.) However, by giving her a believable inner life, Skenandore makes her behavior feel logical, even admirable. Effie had clearly experienced some terrible trauma in her youth, even though it comes back to her only in bits and pieces, and overcame it to establish a fiercely independent life.

The novel’s pacing can be slow at times, but it’s strong in both character and setting. The social environs are adeptly evoked, from the bustling, multi-lingual French Quarter, where Creole socialites seek to impress, to the terrifying raids that mobs of angry white men carry out against law-abiding Black citizens. The embalming process is presented in detail, much like an art form in which Effie happens to be particularly talented.

In addition, Skenandore involves all the senses in her evocation of the past, which not only looks differently than the era we know but can also sound and smell differently. The Undertaker’s Assistant is worth seeking out for anyone seeking an American historical novel both intriguing and original.

The novel will be published by Kensington on July 30th; thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the NetGalley copy.

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away two signed copies of The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on August 15th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to the US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

The Undertaker's Assistant

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this fabulous review, Sarah! We are thrilled that you enjoyed The Undertaker's Assistant! We appreciate you hosting the tour :)

    HF Virtual Book Tours