A Death in the Family (1957) explores the bliss of marital life and the tragedy of death through the points of view of the surviving wife and the little children. The author, James Agee, is a self-doubting alcoholic with three wives and four children. He died of a heart attack inside a cab before he finished this autobiographical novel. He had worked on it for seven years. After his death, editor David McDowell wanted to help his surviving family. Hence, the novel was edited, published, and received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
[Read in May 2014.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
It seems that the novel did not need a lot of editing. The simplicity of its beauty need not be marred by McDowell’s pen. There are parts that do not seem to fit within the plot and these were placed after each part of the novel in italics. It’s as if the editor didn’t want to lose these parts for their sheer lyrical power, so it would be better to let the readers experience them.
Rufus Follet, a sensitive boy not older than six, is the novel’s main protagonist. It is through his perceptions of his father’s death that we get the most compelling parts of the novel. What is it like to be dead? Why do people have to die? Where do people go after they die? These are some of the questions that he asks and processes with his innocence and little knowledge of the world. His mother, Mary Follet, explains the event to him with the help of religion. God has taken their father, Jay Follet, to heaven, and soon, they will all be together up there.
Such explanations are received with a child’s curiosity, one that leads to more questions that are more difficult to answer. Mary tries her best to help Rufus understand what is going on until she reaches the point of near vexation and uses her adult authority instead to put a finality to the child’s questionings. Rufus is left wondering what a concussion is and how to properly pronounce it, and he is a slightly disappointed that he cannot show his new cap to his father. Catherine, the three-year-old sister, asks Mary again why their father cannot come home. For Catherine, dead is something that doesn’t exist in the children’s universe.
With death comes religion. For Mary, religion is her balm to the overwhelming sadness that suddenly takes over her life. For some, religion is the answer to death-related questions. For others still, it is the bane of human reasoning. In discussing death, Agee allows the reader to reëxamine beliefs and faiths without the pomposity of a fanatic. It makes one read more slowly, to wonder and to muse.
There are raw emotions in this book. The first part of the novel is lovely in showing us the beginnings of a new family. Jay takes Rufus to a bar and prides himself in his boy’s ability to read at a young age. Jay asks Mary what she wants for her birthday. Jay drinks a little but sings his children to sleep when the nightmares descend upon their room:
And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.
Jay Follet is a great man, and aren’t great men always taken away just a little too soon?
If, as a child, you have experienced such a death in your family, you will be amazed at how accurate Agee depicted the scenes. A child knows that there is something going on, that there is grief, that there is mourning, but what exactly are these? Why are the adults acting strangely? A child knows that a certain code of conduct must be followed during such an event, but why is it so important to accordingly? Why are they told off if they outside to play? A child knows when not to ask questions, but what are these adults talking about? What is the afterlife and what is a miracle?
This one is. Having read a novel that might not have made it to my shelf is nothing short of a miracle.
[318 pages. Mass market paperback. Secondhand.]