A few years ago I stood in front of a Gee’s Bend quilt and gasped. I couldn’t move. The colors and shapes had me by the hands, inviting me in. Then I listened to the voices of the quilters in the movie running at that Whitney Museum exhibit, and it sounded like home.
So I know how Irene Latham felt, seeing those quilts for the first time, hearing the voices which eventually inspired her debut novel. Now having researched extensively, viewed the quilts many times, written poetry to inspire her, she has brought the story of one ten-year-old Alabama girl to young readers. It’s a story they won’t soon forget.
The Gee’s Bend where Ludelphia Bennett and her family live during the 1930s is a community of hard working farmers who struggle in the worst of times, the Great Depression. Lu gathers eggs, tends her mule, learns to stitch from her mama. But most of what Lu knows of the outside world is what Teacher showed her on a map. Her whole life has been lived in a sharecropper’s cabin, surrounded by family and a close-knit community. Here’s what she says about her home:
I mean to tell you, there ain’t noplace in the world like Gee’s Bend. For one thing, you can’t hardly find it. It’s like a little island sitting just about in the middle of the state of Alabama… I reckon the hard part is how once you’re in Gee’s Bend, it ain’t all that easy to get out.
Ludelphia may not have ventured far outside Gee’s Bend, Alabama, but she’s resourceful, old for her years. When her mother becomes ill, her influenza and pneumonia complicated by childbirth, Lu refuses to stand idly by. No doctor regularly visits the residents of Gee’s Bend, so she sets out to fetch the closest one herself. Even when it means risking her life on a river ferry, hungry and cold, or facing her first and very unfriendly white person, Ludelphia perseveres.
Although some of these adventures may seem extraordinarily brave for such a young girl, Irene Latham writes so convincingly that we continue to turn the pages, expecting the worst and hoping it doesn’t happen. We are along for the thrilling and heartfelt ride, and our navigator, ten years old and limited in her experiences, convinces us that the trip is worth taking.
In fact, Irene Latham has created a true heroine who’s convincing mostly because her voice rings so true. And even though the story’s set in 1932 rural Alabama, the emotions Ludelphia feels are things contemporary youngsters will understand. She worries about her sick mama, feels passionately about the quilt she’s making, is brave beyond her years.
Irene Latham is a quilter, and she’s made the Gee’s Bend quilts a quiet backdrop to the story, interwoven but not intrusive. A Hog Pen quilt keeps away the stench of chickens roosting under the floor boards of the family’s cabin during a hard rain. Housetop and Nine Patch patterned quilts surround Lu’s mother during childbirth. And Ludelphia herself is learning to be a quilter:
I held my needle up in the air till it caught the light and started to shine. Not that I needed light to put in a good stitch. I could touch the knot with the tip of my tongue and know it was tight. I could trace them stitches with my fingers and know if they was straight or not.
Leaving Gee’s Bend is an adventure story with frightening racial overtones. It’s a page-turner with accusations of witchcraft. But in the end, it’s really the story of a ten-year-old whose innocence pushes her into situations with seemingly impossible solutions, a brave young girl who loves her family.
You can read an interview with Irene Latham here.
Check out her website, teacher’s guide, resources and even a quilt template.
Augusta Scattergood, a former children’s librarian, grew up in Mississippi and now lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She regularly reviews books for Delta Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, and blogs about all things bookish at http://ascattergood.blogspot.com/