Book #60: A Death In The Family
Just when I thought I had read it all.
I’ve read about a farming family who loses their farm, their income, and many of their lives in The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve read about a poor, young girl who gets pushed over a boat and drowned by her fiancé in An American Tragedy. I’ve read about the crappiest marriage in the history of marriages in Revolutionary Road.
I’ve read about some depressing stuff while reading through this list. But A Death In The Family takes the cake, and that’s saying something.
Here’s what makes this novel so interesting. The plot is simple: A young father dies in a car crash and leaves behind his wife and two kids. That’s it.
Everything in this novel orbits around that one event—an event that, even though it’s devastating, sadly happens every day.
This isn’t an over-the-top tragedy or some unthinkable event. The brilliance of this James Agee novel is that the sadness of the book is amplified by its simplicity.
If you’ve ever experienced the death of a family member, you know what the process is like. There’s a lot of time sitting, waiting, talking with other family members, reflecting, followed by the funeral, reception, and more of the same. The whole experience goes back and forth between painful emotion and tiresome monotony.
In A Death In The Family, Agee captures that experience beautifully, mainly because he had been through this exact situation when his father died while Agee was just a kid.
I love this passage because of the deflection of emotion and pain you can see here by Mary, who is Jay Follet’s wife (the father who died). She dives into the minutiea of a cup of making a cup of tea while waiting on word about Jay’s fate.
“Let’s have some tea,” she said. … “Goodness no, it’s boiled away! Sit down, Aunt Hannah, it’ll be ready in a jiff.” She hustled to the sink.
“Let me…” Hannah began; then knew better, and hoped that Mary had not heard.
“What?” She was drawing the water.
“Just let me know if there’s anything I can help with.”
“Not a thing, thank you.” She put the water on the stove. “Goodness, sit down.” Hannah took a chair by the table. “Everything is ready that I can think of,” Mary said. “That we can know about, yet.” She sat at the opposite side of the table. “I’ve made up the downstairs bedroom” (she waved vaguely towards it), “where he stayed when his poor back was sprained, you remember.” (Of course I do, Hannah thought; let her talk.) “It’s better than upstairs. Near the kitchen and bathroom both and no stairs to climb and of course if need be, that is, if he needs a nurse, night nursing, we can put her in the dining room and eat in the kitchen, or even set up a cot right in the room with him; put up screen; or if she minds that, why she can just sleep on the living-room davenport and keep the door open between. Don’t you think?”
“Certainly,” Hannah said.
Another reason I think this novel is so powerful is simply because I’m a parent. I can’t imagine the unthinkable loss these poor kids, Rufus and Catherine, have to deal with. In a recent post, I wrote about a passage that made me cry. I literally cried.
As the reader, it’s depressing enough to read about this father losing his life. But once you learn more about the young boy, Rufus, it becomes even more depressing. He’s a kid who gets bullied by the older kids in the neighborhoods and wants nothing more than to fit in and be liked.
The loss of his father, his hero, is such a tragic turn in his life.
Another factor that plays a role in my love of A Death In The Family is the location. I am by no means of fan of Knoxville, Tennessee—it being the headquarters of the University of Tennessee, and I’m a Georgia guy at heart.
But that’s where James Agee grew up. That’s where the story takes place. And Knoxville is just three hours to the east of where I live.
Because of that, the book has a familiar feel. Even though I’ve spent little time in Knoxville, the setting feels like home—which simply adds to the emotional drama of the story from my perspective.
Agee’s an outstanding writer. He has a hint of Fitzgerald in him, I believe. His prose is poetic, beautiful. He sets up his stories so well, and makes you care about these characters like you’re right there with them, like you’re a part of the Follet family and are dealing with this tragedy yourself.
Now I know what Steve Earle was talking about in his introduction to the book, when he said this about A Death In The Family, referring to the actual words of the novel:
Now they are so indelibly etched someplace inside of me that I couldn’t reach to rub them out even if I wanted to. And I never want to.
A Death In The Family is an outstanding piece of southern literature. I don’t know where it ranks in the history of American literature, or even whether or not it should be included on the Time list. But I do know that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
This one’s going to be high in my rankings. It’s a story and a novel I’ll never forget.
Opening Line: “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”
The Meaning: The title is simple, almost mundane, very much like the tone of the novel. So much meaning in this book—the fickleness of life, the fragileness of a child, the importance of parents—all of it with religious overtones.
Highlights: Through a death, Agee makes you appreciate the beauty of life. Rufus is one of the most well-crafted child characters I’ve encountered. Agee also does an outstanding job of setting up the religious tension in the family, which will come out easily after the death of a loved one.
Lowlights: You pretty much know that Jay Follet is going to die. I mean, the title kind of gives away the fact that someone’s dying, and you’ll figure out it’s him pretty quickly. That’s why I haven’t really hid that fact from you in the review or when I’ve been writing about the book. It’s obviously intentional, but it still bothered me to know that was coming.
Memorable Line: “God doesn’t believe in the easy way.”
Final Thoughts: I can’t say enough about this novel. I loved it. A lot. I’m now a fan of James Agee, and like Steve Earle in the introduction of A Death In The Family, I’ll pursue reading more of Agee’s writing—after this project is over, of course.