Reviewed by Abigail Greenbaum
By now, nearly everyone has heard of the Gee’s Bend quilts. Maybe you saw them in New York City, where Leaving Gee’s Bend author and Alabama writer Irene Latham first discovered their bright colors and irreverent patterns, their sense of place and history. Or maybe you’ve seen a traveling exhibit in one of the many sites, from Oxford, Mississippi to Columbia, South Carolina, that have been lucky enough to host the quilts.
But even if you haven’t yet seen the boldly mesmerizing quilts of Gee’s Bend, and even if you care nothing about quilting at all, you should still consider making Irene Latham’s poignant young adult novel, Leaving Gee’s Bend, a standard read in your family. Booklist recommends the story for Grades 5-8.
“I may only have one eye that works,” says Ludelphia Bennett, the novel’s headstrong and passionate young narrator, “but I got to tell you, it works real good. ‘It’s like you was born to stitch,’ Mama said when she looked over my work. And I reckon I was. Ain’t hardly a day passed since then that hasn’t found me with a needle in my hand.”
Luckily for young readers–and curious parents, who will also enjoy this spirited novel–Ludelphia’s mother speaks the truth. Not only can the girl put in a good stitch, she knows the most important thing: every quilt tells a good story. When Ludelphia pieces her quilt together, her story of leaving Gee’s Bend for the first time, you know you are in good hands.
When Ludelphia’s mother falls ill with pneumonia, the young African American girl bucks the wishes of her father, her brother, and her friends, and journeys from the remote river community of Gee’s Bend in search of a doctor. She’s lived her entire life in Gee’s Bend, her “little island,” where there “ain’t noplace you can’t get to by setting one foot after another into that orange dirt that likes to settle right between your toes.”
Like any young person, Ludelphia is curious about the world beyond her home. She dreams about buying bolts of cloth for quilting, fancy dresses, and high heels, things she sees advertised in the occasional newspaper that gets across the Alabama River to Gee’s Bend.
The world outside Gee’s Bend holds many surprises for Ludelphia, including fabrics and colors and people whose stories she never imagined would be pieced together with her own. Ludelphia has never seen a white person before, and on the other side of the river she encounters all kinds, from the grief-stricken and vengeful Mrs. Cobb, who doesn’t leave the house without her shotgun, to the kind wife of Dr. Nelson, who helps answer some of Ludelphia’s more piercing questions about the evil forces in the world, and what a young girl with a knack for quilting might possibly do to help.
Latham does not shy away from the brutal segregationist realities of 1930s Alabama, and she chooses well to let Ludelphia’s bright and resilient sense of the world steer the story: “I didn’t know what to think about [whites only waiting rooms]. Mostly it just made me miss Daddy and Ruben. And Mama, of course. I just wanted to go home, where things made more sense.”
On the other side of river, Ludelphia discovers that Mrs. Cobb plans to raid the already poor community of Gee’s Bend, on the pretense of collecting debts from her late husband’s general store. The crazed woman believes that the alleged witches of Gee’s Bend, such as Ludelphia’s close friend Etta Mae, have caused the death of her niece, and she intends to take revenge on the whole community. Latham shapes this storyline from repossession raids that troubled the actual community of Gee’s Bend in the winter of 1932, and she carefully pieces together historical fact with Ludelphia’s compelling story as masterfully as any quilter.
While Leaving Gee’s Bend demonstrates Latham’s deep reverence for a particular corner of the earth, the novel also explores a more universal connection between sense of place and sense of self. “I reckon when you grow up in one place you just naturally think every other place is the same as your home,” Ludelphia muses. “I reckon it takes leaving to appreciate all the things about that place that make it special.”
When she leaves Gee’s Bend, she learns more about the world, good and bad. But it’s the return journey that allows her own voice and her most original quilts to emerge: “Now that I was back home in the cabin with my whole family beside me, wasn’t nothing to stop me from telling my story just the way it happened.”