G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010 It occurred to me as I was reading through Leaving Gee's Bend that in all the young adult books I have read in the last couple of years, by authors such as Brent Davis, Watt Key, Ted Dunagan and Peter Huggins, the authors have been men and their protagonists boys.
Leaving Gee's Bend, by Irene Latham, best known as a Birmingham poet, is the first of these books I have seen with a protagonist who is a girl and an African-American.
This little heroine is ten-year-old Ludelphia Bennett. Like many another narrator, she is much older now and telling this story of a particularly dramatic period in her childhood. The place is Gee's Bend, Alabama, and the time is November of 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression.
Ludelphia is a bright, amazingly happy girl in spite of some pretty bleak circumstances. Winter is coming on and the Bennetts, sharecroppers like everyone else, live in a shack with a leaky roof, splits in the sections of walls not covered with newspapers, and cracks in the floor large enough so they can see, hear and smell the chickens that live underneath the house. Ludelphia is blind in one eye, from a splinter of hickory that flew while Daddy was chopping wood. Mama is sick, probably with influenza and pneumonia and, on page 37, gives birth prematurely to a little girl, Rose Bennett.
The physical hardships are nearly unbearable and the residents of Gee's Bend add to their own woes with superstitions, creating more anxiety and paranoia than they might already have as poor blacks living in the South in the 1930s. A local girl, Etta Mae, newly returned from Mobile, is suspected of being a witch. Ludelphia, an innocent if there ever was one, on account of her clouded-over eye is also suspected of being a witch.
As Mama's situation worsens, some kind of action is called for. Ludelphia takes it upon herself to get to Camden, across the Alabama River, to fetch Dr. Nelson to come help her mother.
The novel now becomes a heroic quest story, with Ludelphia exhibiting great courage. Ludelphia, who can't swim, nearly drowns, gets across at great peril, sees her very first white person, Mrs. Cobb, who turns out to be more than half crazy and certainly qualifies as a kind of secular witch, and finally reaches the Nelsons'.
Since it would be impossible or at least most unlikely for a young adult novel to end with the mass death of all involved, suffice it to say that after considerably more suffering, the novel ends in some degree, happily. Historically accurate is the malicious raid on the possessions of the Gee's Benders and their rescue from starvation by the Red Cross.
More interesting to adult readers than the plot, however, is the role of quilts and quilting in this fiction. Ludelphia is, at ten, already a quilter. She has a gift for it. Quilting in Gee's Bend, now widely admired as art, was then a social, community enterprise, bringing some pleasure and satisfaction to the ladies. For Ludelphia it is even more.
She thinks of quilting as diary, as autobiography, as a metaphor for one's life. The story of her adventures is to be stitched, using meaningful scraps, colors and shapes, into a quilt. She feels also that she needs to have her quilt in her hand in order to remember and tell her story to others. She speaks most fluidly while quilting. "How was I gonna tell Mrs. Nelson my story without stitching? It was like I needed the rhythm of that needle going in and out to calm myself enough to talk."
The process of quilting also provides life wisdom. "Mama always said it wasn't never too late to change things…ain't nobody to stop you from taking it apart and starting over." And perhaps most importantly, "you was the one in charge of where you put the pieces. You was the one to decide how your story turn out."
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on August 23, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.