From classics by E.B. White and Katherine Paterson to contemporary novels by Eric Walters and Ali Benjamin, the subject of death is something that children’s fiction is unafraid to explore. The rituals following death, however, are topics not as well tread.
In Joanne Levy’s captivating middle-grade novel Sorry for Your Loss, readers follow 12-year-old Evie Walman as she spends the summer assisting her parents, who own and operate a Jewish funeral home. Evie and her older brother, Natan, have grown up around their parents’ rather distinctive line of business. While classmates at Evie’s private school express misguided disgust at the Walmans’ business and at the fact that Evie assists with junior tasks at their chapel, Evie plans to follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a funeral director.
As knowledgeable and curious about funerals and death as she may be, Evie is thrown when 12-year-old Oren Katzman loses his parents in a car accident. As Walman Memorial Chapel prepares for the funeral service for Oren’s parents, the family – and Evie especially – finds the devastation almost too much to bear. Evie is then asked by her parents to take on extra responsibilities: to keep an eye out for Oren, to offer him comfort if needed, and to spend time with him while Oren’s uncle is guided through funeral procedures. Evie and Oren slowly and tentatively connect, even as Oren refuses to speak. A secondary storyline involving the craft of quilling, which is the shaping and gluing of thin strips of rolled paper to make shapes and designs, brings the two characters closer together.
Levy’s story is immediately engaging, led by a fascinating, keen protagonist in Evie and in the main supporting characters, with a bit of mystery added concerning Evie’s stance on friendship. There is a potent emotional openness throughout Sorry for Your Loss: in how unreservedly death, grief, and guilt are experienced by both children and adults, and in how Levy details specific rituals involved in Jewish funerals such as tahara, which is the purification of the body.
While deeply poignant and heartbreaking, there are also moments of lightness that offer much-needed levity against a more serious foundation. In all, Sorry for Your Loss is an enlightening, delicately hopeful, and beautifully rendered story.