Reading a memoir is always a risky business. Sometimes the succession of words resembles a leaky faucet with a slow drip, but other times you get lucky. Consider The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield a work which is a steady stream of gold consisting of a touching story which reads like a novel, reflecting small town southern life in the sixties and seventies.
Kate Mayfield looks back on her childhood living in Jubilee, Kentucky. What makes her life exceptional is the fact that her father is an undertaker and her home is above the funeral parlor. Ms Mayfield creates a portrait of a family who must be quiet and respectful around the constant flow of dead and the words “We’ve got a body!” Yet, her life is not steeped in the morbid. Kate adores her dapper father Frank, tolerates her Victorian mother Lily Tate, relies on her solid brother Thomas, fears her crazy older sister Evelyn, and watches over her sweet little sister Jemima. Colorful characters surround the family, such as the family maid Belle, who makes Kate lunch every day and walks her to school, and eccentric, wealthy Miss Agnes Davis who only wears red. Kate has a special bond with her dad, and he often takes her on little excursions around town, such as to the counter by the Spring Farms Dairy where Paulette serves her lemon meringue pie. Kate boldly explores the world of her childhood, exposing the skeletons surrounding the undertaking business, including some of the unusual antics the “customers” exhibit.
Each chapter introduces us to more of the people who have influenced Kate’s life. And as Kate grows up, we can understand her rebellious nature based on the constant need for silence, both physically, mentally, and verbally.
Interspersed throughout the book are special “In Memoriam” gems which give vignettes of the life and death of various town people who have compelling stories to tell. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions from Kate’s early years, I must admit that the book gets a little bogged down in the middle where she explores the seedier side of her world, exposing not only her father’s flaws but also the ugliness of racism and the pettiness of small town life. However, as a memoir, we expect Kate Mayfield to give some feedback on her experiences, which become more focused as she grows older. This is her story to tell and a book dealing with death is the perfect vehicle to explore some of the realities of life. “Mostly what the dead take with them are their secrets.” Despite this quote from her father, in the Epilogue Kate tries to answer some of the childhood questions she poses about her father, as well as wrap up some other loose ends.
The author shares some interesting revelations and it was fun revisiting the era when I, too, was a child.
I would like to thank Gallery Books and Netgalley for allowing me to download this book in exchange for an honest review.
I give this book four stars.