Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Shrouding Woman

The Shrouding Woman

Loretta Ellsworth
Historical Fiction
For ages 12 and up
Henry Holt, 2002   ISBN: 978-0805066517

Evie’s heart is heavy with grief and loss. Her mother died of consumption a few months ago and Evie is still not sure how she is supposed to go on without her gentle, pretty, mother whose gardening skills could make a garden spring up out of the prairie, whose cakes were delicious, and whose presence made Papa smile. As if things are not bad enough, Papa’s sister Aunt Flo is coming to live with them. Aunt Flo is so unlike Mama. She is big and square. She often speaks German and gives big hugs. She is not like Mama and strangest of all, she is a shrouding woman; she gets the dead ready for burial. Evie decides that she is not going to like Aunt Flo.

Her little sister Mae on the other hand is only five and she needs someone to love and to cuddle her. Mae quickly adopts Aunt Flo and Aunt Flo quickly takes to Mae. Evie does quite the opposite. She fights off all Aunt Flo’s friendly advances. She makes it clear that Aunt Flo is not welcome in “Mama’s garden” and that she, Evie, does not want Aunt Flo in her life.

But, as the months pass Evie cannot help realizing that she and Mae and Papa do all need Aunt Flo after all. She also comes to understand that the life giving abilities of her mother in the garden and her Aunt Flo’s abilities to prepare the dead for the next life are not so different after all. Both are acts of love and both give people peace. After she helps Aunt Flo in her work Evie comes to see that Aunt Flo’s work is not gruesome or ugly. It is gentle and peaceful and it gives comfort to the bereaved. Perhaps inheriting the talents of both the women in her life would not be such a bad thing after all.

This beautifully written, often lyrical, book is set in Minnesota in the 1800’s when life on the prairies was still harsh and full of unexpected dangers. Long winters, hot summers, illnesses, and tornadoes were just some of the troubles that settlers had to deal with. Evie’s experiences were not atypical of the time as many children lost family members to illnesses or accidents. The author not only takes us into the heart of this family and shows us what it would have been like to live in that time and place, but she also shares Evie’s personal struggles with us. She also tells us about the shrouding women, a group of women whose very personal services have been largely forgotten. This is a fitting tribute to those women who, with kindness and dignity, prepared hundreds of people for their last public appearance.