It has taken me three weeks to crawl my way through James Agee’s A Death in the Family. Crawl as in slowly, gradually pulling myself through and over the dense landscape of words and pregnant prose.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning book is set in Knoxville, Tennessee in the early twentieth century. Woven with themes of loss, religion and memory, it is an autobiographical account of the death of Agee’s father and its effect on his family when he was a young boy.
That may explain the excruciating detail of the book—I felt, often, as if I were a fly on the wall, pacing back and forth while the characters interact and respond to what is happening around them. Each breath, each movement, each thought becomes a mountain of words as heavy as the grief. The story is Agee’s memory, and the slow-motion of its tragedy is as weighted in his heart as it is on the pages of this book. “The mere attempt to examine my own confusion would consume volumes,” Agee once admitted himself.
That is not to say that the story is not delicious in its detail—it is just a little too rich for my taste.
Photo: James Agee as a boy, pictured in 1915 with, from left, his grandfather Joel Tyler, his grandmother Emma Tyler, his sister Emma Agee, his uncle Hugh Tyler, and his mother Laura Agee. The photograph is from an album that belonged to Hugh Tyler, which is now in the East Tennessee History Center’s McClung Collection, found online at the Knoxville News Sentinel.
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The Unread Book Project
Book #3: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
Click here to purchase a copy of A Death in the Family or The Four Agreements.
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