The Undertaker's Daughter is one of those deceptively simple novels that slowly seduces a reader as the plot evolves, conflict building with thoughtful attention to character and environment. Protagonist Ilka Nichols Jennings travels from Denmark to Wisconsin when she is notified that her absentee father has died and left her an inheritance. Ilka and her mother deserted many years ago by Paul Jensen, Ilka has few memories. A widow at forty, Ilka travels to Wisconsin to sign the necessary documents and close the estate. Planning a quick visit, she arrives at her father's funeral home, the business she is to inherit. With few memories of the funeral home business he deserted in Copenhagen along with his first family, Ilka has no experience with a business facing closure by the IRS if payment is not received.
Overwhelmed by this new reality, Ilka seeks advice from the two people running the rambling gothic building: Artie Sorvino, who prepares the bodies for burial, and Sister Eileen O'Connor, a nun who volunteers her time as a way to give back to her religious community. Paul Jensen's second family, the wife and daughters he shared most of his life with, have no ties to the business, living quietly in a lovely home in town. Still intending to return home quickly, Ilka is unsettled, immersed in memories when sleeping in Paul's room that first night. A sense of connection slowly takes root as she inhabits the elaborate building her father loved.
This quiet, unassuming protagonist is dropped into an environment rife with crisis: either sell the business to a prominent local family willing to absorb it into their corporate expansion or find a way to pay the IRS, a temporary fix for an ongoing problem. Ilka is a surprisingly sympathetic character, plain-faced and plain-spoken but with a compassionate heart, unable to judge a father who has left her behind. Her business taking photographs of schoolchildren awaits her return, but Ilka finds it impossible to walk away from the place she has inherited. The cranky, ambivalent Artie Sorvino and the bustling nun lend the novel an offbeat flavor, an opportunity to understand her father better, but Ilka herself is a character of grace and confusion, instinct and the stubbornness of one pushed to make important decisions. The death of a local man, first thought of as homeless, suggests a mystery afoot--that and the threatening phone calls Ilka is receiving demanding money or ownership of the funeral business.
The Undertaker's Daughter is filled with surprises, not the least of which is Ilka's affection for a man her mother has bitterly and resentfully chastised, a daughter unable to judge a man she's hardly known, a business trembling on the edge of ruin, and the scent of mystery mingling with the formaldehyde that permeates the air of the funeral home. The edifice that houses both mortuary and family quarters is another character, silent in the drama, reeking of death and bleach but also compassion and reverence. Searching her soul for an answer to her dilemma, Ilka survives her first challenges, considering her options for the future in a landscape slightly less foreign than when she arrived. Temporarily, at least, everything is quiet… until the ringing of the phone and another threat. The tale is not finished, the beleaguered Ilka due to appear once more in another tale.