published Friday, September 6th, 2013

Susan Gregg Gilmore's newest fiction based on Sequatchie Valley history

BOOK SIGNINGS

Friends of the Sequatchie County Public Library evenT

When: 4-6 p.m. CST, Thursday, Sept. 19.

Where: Spartan Industries plant site, corner of Cedar and State streets in Dunlap, Tenn.

Admission: Free.

Information: 423-949-2357.

Dinner Wine & A Book

When: 5-7 p.m., Monday, Sept. 23.

Where: Enzo's Market and The Wine Shop, 1501 Long St.

Tickets: $40 per person, $60 couple, includes signed book.

Reservations: Required by Saturday, Sept. 21.

Information: 423-486-9321.

Author Susan Gregg Gilmore was one-third of the way into her third book when she threw out those 120 pages and started over.

A year's work gone in seconds.

"It didn't really honor the people I was writing about," she says. "It wasn't going in the right direction."

On Tuesday, two years after that writer's crisis, "The Funeral Dress" (Broadway Books, 340 pages, $16) was released. Gilmore's third book is a stark and emotional story of Emmalee Bullard, a teenage mother in the late 1960s with little education who's trying to make a life for herself and daughter. Her mother is dead; her alcoholic father begrudges having to feed, clothe, even share his filthy, rundown shack with her because she and her newborn daughter are constant reminders of how he has failed his family.

Emmalee finds an unlikely ally after being hired at the Tennewa shirt factory, a plant -- and the women who work there -- based loosely on the Spartan Industries plant in Dunlap, Tenn., says Gilmore, a former feature writer for the News-Free Press in Chattanooga.

In the book, Emmalee is befriended by Leona Lane, an older seamstress who sits at the machine beside her and eventually offers Emmalee a place to live. But before Emmalee can make that move, an incident occurs that costs Emmalee her chance for a better life. The only way she knows to express her grief is by using her one talent to sew Leona's funeral dress.

"A funeral dress would be the most personal thing Emmalee knew how to do for her," explains Gilmore, who returned to Chattanooga three years ago after spending several years on the West Coast and in Nashville. "Emmalee never had anything, she put clothes together from whatever she could find from a church basement. So to her, that was important -- one nice thing to spend eternity in."

However Emmalee's gift becomes controversial. Through the reactions of the town and church leaders, Gilmore hopes to get her readers to do some soul-searching as well.

While Emmalee's life is a work of fiction, the author made numerous trips into the Sequatchie Valley to interview former seamstresses at the plant as well as Jim Jones, former Spartan Industries manager, and funeral director Roy Joe Walker.

"My mother's people have always lived in the Sequatchie Valley, so I had already decided to set my book there," says Gilmore. "The book was inspired by a family photo -- a 1970 Kodak photo of my aunt and uncle, who lived in a single-wide trailer off Harrison Bay Road for more than 50 years. When I came across that, I thought about what that must have been like to be a grown woman who had raised a family and lived a lifetime in a trailer."

One of the former shirt factory seamstresses, whom Gilmore spent many hours interviewing, was Marea Barker, who died before "The Funeral Dress" was published.

"There is definitely some of Marea Barker in Leona -- master seamstress, kind heart. I loved talking with her. She was never bored in 27 years of lapel making. She only spoke about the friendships and community," recalls Gilmore.

Vallerie Greer, who grew up in Sequatchie Valley and now lives in North Chattanooga, accompanied the author on about 10 of those visits into the valley, introducing her friend and helping pave the way for interview requests.

"The father of one of my best friends ran the Spartan plant," says Greer. "One of the employees was the mother of a very good friend. Susan interviewed her for hours. It was very interesting and fun to listen to her, to hear stories I had never heard before."

Greer describes the book as "somewhat dark, but very realistic. Even though (the plot) is a tragic situation, it left one with a lot of hope for Emmalee -- that maybe she would get out of that cycle. I felt hopeful for Emmalee at the end."

Having revived this era of Sequatchie Valley history through the characters of "The Funeral Dress," it is Gilmore's hope that the book helps launch a cultural heritage project in the Sequatchie Valley. Susan Greer, director of the Dunlap Public Library and Vallerie Greer's sister-in-law, says an effort to collect the oral histories of former Spartan employees will be announced during a book signing for "The Funeral Dress" on Sept. 19.

Friends of the Sequatchie County Library are hosting the book signing, which will honor the author as well as the women who inspired the book. The library director says the book signing will serve as a reunion of people who worked at the plant and their families.

"It is the first reunion I know of since Spartan Industries closed, which I believe was in the 1970s," she says. "We have gathered pictures, clothes actually sewn there and memorabilia for the event."

Rosie Von Canon, manager of the The Wine Shop at Enzo's Market, where another book signing is set for Sept. 23, describes the novel as "an amazing book about love, loss and coming of age. But with death involved, it's very deep."

"The Funeral Dress" inspired Dove-winning singer Belinda Smith of Nashville to write the song," I Believe in You," Von Canon says, and Smith will perform the song at both book signings.

Gilmore believes she achieved her goal of honoring the women of the Sequatchie Valley through the bond of friendship formed by Emmalee and Leona.

"For me, the most overwhelming part is the strength of a community of women. When they really are a community, there is limitless potential," she says.

Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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