“And no matter what, there’s not one thing in this world or the next that we can do or hope or guess at or wish or pray that can change it or help it one iota. Because whatever is, is. That’s all. And all there is now is to be ready for it, strong enough for it, whatever it may be. That’s all. That’s all that matters. It’s all that matters because it’s all that’s possible. ”
James Agee’s ‘A Death in the Family’ was published posthumously and also won the late author a Pulitzer Prize. In addition to this fact, what makes the central theme more moving is the awareness that it is an autobiographical account of the impact of his own father’s death when he was just six.
The story focuses on the immediate aftermath of a tragedy in the Follet family – the death of Jay Follet in a freak accident. If I were to try to describe the book merely based on the plot, I would probably struggle because apart from the one focal incident (the accident), there are no big plot points.Instead, it’s a haunting exploration of the anatomy of grief seen primarily through the eyes of Jay’s 6 year old son, Rufus, and also through the eyes of the adults that surround him – his maternal grandparents, uncle, great-aunt, his sister and mother. The prose and the intricate detail of what grief means and how people react to it is such that I felt like I was intruding upon a private moment in the family.
One of the most resonating moments in the book is just after Mary, Rufus’ mother, comes to know that her husband has been in an accident. The author explores the period before she knows with absolute certainty that he is dead with so much humaneness. We are there with Mary at that moment – the endless waiting, the hoping and the quickly fading optimism, the attempt to control herself from falling apart and finally, the giving up – the resignation to fate and reality.
(Picture: A Burial At Ornans by Gustave Courbet. Musée d’Orsay)
Then the description of the immediate reactions in the days following from the point of view of Rufus gives a holistic picture of the Follets’ grief. His innocent attempt at grasping the full implications of death and his lack of understanding of its meaning beyond the theoretical sense haunts the reader. Along with his sister, he is drawn into a world that’s changed its course and is incomprehensible – the whispers between adults behind doors, the sudden change in their mother, the disruption in everyday routine. All of it makes them realize that there’s something of serious significance and that it’s do with their father ‘being put to sleep by God’, yet it doesn’t make sense to them.
By capturing the immediate impact of the death, the author conveys an intensely real look at the nature of loss in a family.