Friday, June 25, 2010

Piece by Piece: Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham

I mean to tell you, there ain't noplace in the world like Gee's Bend. It's like a little island sitting just about in the middle of the state of Alabama. Only instead of ocean water, it's caught up on three sides by a curve in the Alabama River. Ain't noplace in Gee's Bend you can't get to by setting one foot after another into that orange dirt that likes to settle between your toes. I reckon the hard part is how once you're in Gee's Bend, it ain't all that easy to get out.

Ten-year-old Ludelphia Bennett finds refuge from her monochromatic hard-working life in the tiny black community of Gee's Bend, Alabama, in 1932 by sewing any scraps of colored cloth she can get her hands on into quilt tops. But when her mother, already weakened from influenza comes down with pneumonia after giving birth to little Rose, Ludelphia believes that only Dr. Nelson across the river in Camden can save her life and their family's future.

But the river is way up and Joe's Ferry is abandoned when she arrives to cross. Ludelphia braves the current alone on the log raft ferry, but the cable breaks in the torrent and she is washed far downstream. Barely escaping the flood water with her life, Ludelphia is discovered hiding in her barn by the feared Mrs. Cobb, freshly widowed wife of the storekeeper to whom the Bennetts owe money they can't repay. Unhinged by the almost simultaneous sudden deaths of her husband and beloved niece, the old woman is alternately kind, giving Ludelphia breakfast and a ride to Camden, and threatening, waving her shotgun, calling her a witch, and promising that she's coming to Gee's Bend to take everything everyone has to pay off their debts to her husband. Ludelphia is treated kindly by Dr. and Mrs. Nelson, but the good doctor is too overworked to visit a patient with the then untreatable malady.

Now Ludelphia knows she has no choice but to return to Gee's Bend as quickly as she can to warn her family and neighbors to hide their livestock, tools, and seed stock from confiscation by the crazed Mrs. Cobb. With no ferry to speed her, the forty-mile walk around the river would take days, so in desperation Lu hides herself in one of the wagons in the shotgun-wielding Mrs. Cobb's caravan in the hopes that she can escape in time to warn everyone, not knowing whether her mother will be alive when she returns.

In a a suspenseful narrative, Irene Latham's Leaving Gee's Bend (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010) creates a small world peopled with characters simultaneously ignorant and wise, kind and cruel, centered around the ten-year-old Ludelphia, who, although blind in one eye, sees things with more clarity than most. Lu is indeed an unusually perspicacious young heroine, but then so is Scout Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird with whom she shares an intimate and ultimately complex view of race and human nature in the Jim Crow South. Latham portrays the raw harshness of rural black life unflinchingly, but her strongly-drawn characters, even the "not right in her mind" Mrs. Cobb, wo believes that the "witches" of Gee's Bend are the cause of her grief, never lose their humanity. Ludelphia herself manages to find color and order in her quilts, as throughout the experience she pieces together scraps of bright fabric, her mother's apron tie, the doctor's handkerchief, and her own feed-sack-cloth pocket, to build a hard-headed but meaningful pattern out of it all.

I started again with the needle. Mama always said you should live your life the same way you piece a quilt. That you was the one in charge of where you put the pieces. You was the one to determine how your story turns out.

Well, it seemed to me some of them pieces had a mind of their own.

Irene Latham weaves her story around the history of her native Alabama, especially the very real and now famous quilt makers of Gee's Bend, whose work exhibited in the Whitney Museum of Art in New York has been likened to that of modern masters such as Picasso. Although Ludelphia is a fictional character, she bears the name of one of the famed quilting families of Gee's Bend, and her story, like Scout's, should become a staple of Alabama--and American--historical fiction.

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