‘The Undertaker’s Assistant’: Five Questions for Amanda Skenandore [INTERVIEW]

Amanda Skenandore

Amanda Skenandore (Photo courtesy the author, Facebook)

If you’ve been reading along with us for a while, you have probably realized a few things. First, we really enjoy historical fiction that is well written. Second, we love characters that have a unique voice, particularly if they teach us important lessons or help us see life from a different perspective. And finally, New Orleans is one of our favorite places on the planet. In Amanda Skenandore’s latest novel, The Undertaker’s Assistant, she blends all these elements into an unforgettable story about a woman who returns home to build her future, but first she must confront her past. Enjoy!   —J&H

Jathan & Heather: Effie reflects on the political climate of the day, noting that the White Leaguers had been drilling up and down Camp Street the week before. (Page 43) Who were the White Leaguers and why was attending political club meetings at this time a crazy idea?

Amanda Skenandore: The White League was an organization of white Louisianans founded during Reconstruction whose mission was to restore white supremacy in the South. They relied heavily on violence and intimidation to achieve these ends (beatings, whippings, assassinations, threats). The League often targeted local Republican officials (black and white), black militia groups, and attendees of political rallies. In 1874, for example, the White League murdered six officials in Northern Louisiana and staged a coup d’état against the Republican-controlled government in New Orleans. This is why Effie’s attendance at political club meetings was both dangerous and bold; in doing so, she risked her livelihood and personal safety.

J&H: Effie embalms a man she thinks may have accosted her and readily lies when asked if he had hurt her. (Page 102—103) Why would a strong woman like Effie be quick to deny pain? Was this a difficult topic to write about for you as a modern woman?

AS: Effie lives in a time when violence against women, particularly black women, was a common occurrence. Though she’s repressed many of her memories of violence, her conditioned response—to deny the pain as a means of survival—is still very much alive inside her. Even though her employer, Mr. Whitmark, to whom she’s speaking in this passage, is as close to a friend as she’s got, she’s not blind to the power differential between them. She’s wary and says what society expects of her.

I did find this a difficult topic to write about. I wanted to truthfully represent the pervasiveness of violence while not overwhelming the reader. The power imbalances Effie faced are not as stark today as they were 150 years ago (though they certainly still exists). It can be frustrating to modern readers of historical fiction when characters don’t react in the same way we might today. But strength manifests in many different ways. Depicting that strength in ways that resonate with modern readers while remaining faithful to the considerable restraints women and other oppressed people faced, can be difficult.

It was also challenging to write because, although society is better off today than it was then, people of color are still disproportionately the target of violence and woman are still bullied into silence. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way yet to go.

J&H: Effie notes the differences between her and others around her, like those who wore expensive clothes and had high yellow skin and the dark-skinned waiter who may have been mistaken for Sambo, while she may be considered an “Eliza” herself. (Page 158) What made these contrasts so pervasive and why was it important for you to differentiate and examine how these juxtapositions might have made her feel?

AS: Reconstruction-era New Orleans was an incredibly and uniquely diverse city. Many of the city’s African American population had been free before the Civil War. French, Haitian, African, Spanish, Native American, German, Irish, Italian, and American culture clashed and intermixed. I wanted to honor that diversity and depict the power struggles that were going on in every enclave and strata of the city.

Wherever Effie goes, she finds herself an outsider. Her race makes her stand out in the North. While there are more people in New Orleans who look like her, she quickly comes to realize she still doesn’t fit in. Her brusque manner and precociousness are at odds with the feminine ideal of the era. She’s untrained in the conventions of the wealthy and aristocratic. But even if she’s not entirely aware of it, Effie wants desperately to belong. She notices this dizzying diversity but doesn’t know how to navigate it.

J&H: Never blind to the way others see her, it seems to particularly pain Effie that even her friend Adeline has never once deigned to step into her world. (Page 215) What truly kept women like them apart and why would it matter so much to Effie? How do you think modern women would react to this same situation?

AS: In part, it is their vast difference in experience that keeps Adeline and Effie apart. Effie was born a slave, Adeline a free woman. Effie spent most of the formative years of her life in the North, while Adeline grew up New Orleans. Effie’s an American. Adeline’s French Creole.

There’s so much that’s different between Adeline and Effie—their upbringings, their temperaments, their social standing. But what truly kept women like them apart was the limited power they had in society. This lack of power made every advantage Adeline had more crucial to survival. Giving up these advantages to step into Effie’s world—even if just for a moment—could cost Adeline her future. Modern women have greater freedom of expression—not only in what we do or how we dress, but also whom we choose to befriend. But we’re still scraping and scrambling toward equality. And sometimes we sacrifice solidarity and friendship to that struggle. So, in truth, I don’t know that a modern woman would react all that differently.

J&H: Mr. Watkins’ description of work in the cane fields stirs few memories for Effie. In fact, she feels that the past is all around her, yet still beyond her reach. (Page 274) What makes it truly difficult for Effie to connect to others and even to her own past? What lessons do you think Effie can teach us today?

AS: Like her denial of pain, Effie’s difficulty in connecting with her past is largely an act of self-preservation. Her difficulty connecting with people is multifold. Those in the past whom she’s relied on have betrayed her. So naturally, she’s wary of forming connections. She also relates to people in nonconventional ways. She’s brilliant but has difficulty reading social cues. In a society where mores and etiquette were of heightened importance, it was easy for a woman like Effie to find herself estranged.

Effie’s struggle can teach us the value of allowing a little vulnerability into our lives. Yes, it makes it easier for people to hurt us, but it’s also what allows us to experience love.

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Amanda Skenandore's THE UNDERTAKER'S ASSISTANT

Kensington

ABOUT THE BOOK

Set during Reconstruction-era New Orleans, and with an extraordinary and unforgettable heroine at its heart, The Undertaker’s Assistant is a powerful story of human resilience—and of the unlikely bonds that hold fast even in our darkest moments.

The dead can’t hurt you. Only the living can.” Effie Jones, a former slave who escaped to the Union side as a child, knows the truth of her words. Taken in by an army surgeon and his wife during the War, she learned to read and write, to tolerate the sight of blood and broken bodies—and to forget what is too painful to bear. Now a young freedwoman, she has returned south to New Orleans and earns her living as an embalmer, her steady hand and skillful incisions compensating for her white employer’s shortcomings.

Tall and serious, Effie keeps her distance from the other girls in her boarding house, holding tight to the satisfaction she finds in her work. But despite her reticence, two encounters—with a charismatic state legislator named Samson Greene, and a beautiful young Creole, Adeline—introduce her to new worlds of protests and activism, of soirées and social ambition. Effie decides to seek out the past she has blocked from her memory and try to trace her kin. As her hopes are tested by betrayal, and New Orleans grapples with violence and growing racial turmoil, Effie faces loss and heartache, but also a chance to finally find her place…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amanda Skenandore is a historical fiction writer and registered nurse. Between Earth and Sky was her first novel.

She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Readers may visit her at her home on the Web at AmandaSkenandore.com, like her on Facebook, and follow her on TwitterInstagram and Goodreads.

THE UNDERTAKER’S ASSISTANT
By Amanda Skenandore
336 pp. Kensington. $15.95

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours bannerPurchase The Undertaker’s Assistant at one of these fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, and Powell’s.

The Undertaker’s Assistant is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

GIVEAWAY

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away two signed copies of The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on August 15th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to the US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

The Undertaker’s Assistant

The Undertaker's Assistant Blog Tour Poster

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

One Response to ‘The Undertaker’s Assistant’: Five Questions for Amanda Skenandore [INTERVIEW]

  1. Amy Bruno says:

    Thank you so much for hosting Amanda’s Blog Tour! This interview was great!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours

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