Reflection on A Death in the Family by James Agee

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 28: A Death in the Family by James Agee

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

A Death in the Family takes place in a couple days in the summer of 1915 mainly in Knoxville, Tennessee and the surrounding areas. Reading the book is a little disjointed since it brings together an unfinished manuscript after the author’s death and there are portions in the Penguin Classic edition, which I used, which are in italics to indicate that they may not be where the author intended in the manuscript. The story is about a family’s ordeal in the couple of days around the father’s sudden death in an accident. The book jumps between perspectives of the wife, the son, the daughter and other members of the family and touches on differences in religious practices and beliefs, the disfunction that can exist in extended families, and the impact and importance of the family as they move through grief.

As a pastor, I walk into this space pretty frequently and the author does a good job in describing many of the dynamics you may encounter. I, along with most of the characters in the book, dislike the priest in his rigid and cold way of approaching people in their grief but I have encountered people in religious roles who do more harm than good. The book speaks to the life in a town from the past and there are certain aspects that are both appealing and off putting about the description of life in Knoxville (particularly from the perspective of Rufus, the son) and some of the expectations of individuals based on gender and place in the family have changed since the 1910s, but much of the experience of sudden and intense grief would be recognizable for any time. Reading about a death in a family may not be an enjoyable experience, but the author does a good job of describing the difficult job of dealing with the aftermath of a world changing loss in the family.

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