Charles Wilkins’ memoir In the Land of Long Fingernails is an intriguing and (dare I say) lively glimpse into the world of cemeteries and what goes on behind the scenes in enacting the final chapter of people’s lives. Wilkins looks at not just the processes involved and where those processes can go awry, comically or tragically, but he also casts an eye, that of his adult self filtering his youthful perceptions, on the individuals who carry out those processes, which most people do not want to know about, much less be called upon to take them on themselves.
In a fashion that is kind of Roy MacGregor meets Six Feet Under, the memoir recounts Wilkins’ one summer working in a graveyard. That summer happened to be 1969, a year pivotal in general and historical consciousness, and also so for the young Wilkins, who was a recalcitrant university student at the time. As such, his insights into the workings of the graveyard are intermingled with his own personal turmoil, as he struggles with decisions about his future and his relationships with friends and family. His is not the stylish angst of Nate Fisher, but something much more down to earth (guess that’s a pun) and not without a sense of humour.
Wilkins’ observations are never macabre or overly unsettling, and ultimately the book is quite respectful and compassionate of both the living and the dead.
In the Land of Long Fingernails is one of the Canadian non-fiction titles I’ve recommended for Canada Reads 2012: True Stories. If you’d like to support this book as a possible Canada Reads finalist, you can vote for it here, as well as perusing some other great recommendations.