In Home, Cee learns to quilt while recovering from a near-fatal run-in with a doctor who used poor, black women as experimental subjects in his research. After returning to her hometown, her neighbors keep her company in her sickroom and, with their help, she makes her first quilt. She also starts to put together the broken pieces of her life to make something she can call her own and be proud of.
I am not a quilter. I'm fascinated by patterns and mosaics, but the sewing part of the equation has kept me from diving in. However, I did live with a dedicated quilter for a while, and watching her piece together those beautiful quilts was fascinating and humbling. Making something beautiful and functional from scraps is a wonderful metaphor, and appears in a bunch of great books. Here are a few of my favorites:
The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson
In this mystery (also a family drama and coming-of-age story) quilting is the pastime of Laurel - sister, mother and seeker of the truth behind the drowning of her neighbor's daughter in her backyard pool. Laurel takes tiny pieces of information and sews them together to find the story of what happened - with several false starts, poorly made quilts of facts that don't tell what really happens. The real story is something you could never have imagined from the pieces at hand.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Alias Grace is based on a true story, but makes no claims to the truth. There are many contradictory pieces to the puzzle, and the reader must put them together and decide what really happened. Each chapter title is the name of a quilt pattern, and lots of different kinds of material are included - narration from Grace Marks (convicted murder), newspaper stories, stories about Grace told by other people, poems, etc. Grace herself is a quilter, and she sews many quilts in the book, not all of her own choosing. All these various pieces should add up to something coherent, but stitching them together turns out to be more difficult than expected. I wonder if Margaret Atwood is a quilter.
Happenstance by Carol Shields
Happenstance is actually two short novels, one each for a husband and wife. They spend a week apart - the wife at a quilting show and the husband at home. During this week, each of them try to come to grips with the life they've been leading together as they approach middle age and wonder if they could have done something different. Again, Shields is showing us a complete marriage by revealing the tiny pieces that matter and putting them together so they make sense when you take a step back and view them as a whole.
This article was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the
January 2013 paperback release.
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