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A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family
James Agee
318 pages

James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a stark, realistic portrayal of the searing emotional pain in human response to tragedy. The novel takes place over just a few days, as a close-knit family copes with the sudden loss of a loved one. FIrst, there is the waiting -- knowing an accident has occurred, but not yet knowing the outcome:
This heaviness had steadily increased while he sat and waited and by now the air felt like iron and it was almost as if he could taste in his mouth the sour and cold, taciturn taste of iron. Well what else are we to expect, he said to himself. What life is. He braced against it quietly to accept, endure it, relishing not only his exertion but the sullen, obdurate cruelty of the iron, for it was the cruelty which proved and measured his courage. Funny I feel so little about it, he thought. (p. 136)

When the death is discovered, Agee delves deep into the souls of his characters and their varied responses. The adults try to explain the loss to two young children. One of the children, a 6-year-old boy, meets up with children on their way to school and uncomfortably revels in his celebrity status. Some of the adults become stronger in their grief, and take care of those who have fallen apart:
"That's when you're going to need every ounce of common sense you've got," he said. "Just spunk won't be enough; you've got to have gumption. You've got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You've got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You've got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they've come thorugh it and that you will too. You'll bear it because there isn't any choice -- except to go to pieces." (p. 149)

This book is well written, and immensely powerful. Agee takes the reader deep inside the hearts and minds of his characters; I could identify with everyone in some way. He plumbs the depths of emotion, such that the book must be set aside every so often to work through feelings evoked by the text. I was most touched by the children in this story: the boy and his younger sister. Their emotional needs were largely ignored. The adults underestimated their ability to grasp the situation. Some wanted to exclude the children from the rituals of mourning; others took them under their wing and allowed them to grieve in their own ways. Agee writes from his own experience, having experienced a similar tragedy at a young age himself.

While it was a very sad book, I am glad to have read it -- it will occupy a place in my heart for a long, long time. ( )


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 20th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC)
This looks like a great book - I had not heard of this title, but your review has piqued my interest (as usual)! =)
Dec. 20th, 2008 11:46 pm (UTC)
Great Review
Thank you for a wonderful review. I definitely will ensure this one stays on my radar for next year.
Dec. 23rd, 2008 03:25 am (UTC)
A Death in the Family
Thanks for your heartfelt review. You might be interested in the fact that there's a new version of "A Death in the Family" which just came out a year ago from the University of Tennessee Press. It provides a completely new take on the classic novel both by including substantial new material (which was also printed in Harper's from December of 2007) and by reorganizing the material so that we learn a lot more about Jay & his family before his death.

I'd be interested in your take on this new version if you have a chance to look at it.

Paul Sprecher, Trustee, The James Agee Trust
Dec. 24th, 2008 02:03 pm (UTC)
Re: A Death in the Family
Paul, thank you for your comment. I was aware that there were different editions of this work and different editorial decisions taken regarding the "extra" material. But I was not aware of this new version. It would be interesting to read it!

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )