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Unforgettable stories of the members of a women's quilting group form the heart of this multi-layered, multi-generational novel that is as colorful and diverse as the lives it chronicles. Now a major motion picture from Amblin/Universal to be released in December and starring Winona Ryder, Alfre Woodard, Anne Bancroft, Maya Angelou, Rip Torn, Gena Rowlands, and Ellen Burstyn. Reissue.
Literature was my next love.Until I became loosely acquainted with critical theory,which struck me as a kind of intellectualism for its own sake.It always seems that one has to choose literature or critical theory,that one cannot love both.All of this finally pushed me willingly (I later realized)into history.
I began with the discipline of the time line —a holdover from elementary school —setting all the dates in order,allowing me to fix time and place.History needs a specific context,if nothing else.My time lines gradually grew more and more ornate,with pasted-on photographs and drawings that I carefully cut from cheap history books possessing great illustrations but terrible,unchallenging text.I was taken with the look of history before I arrived at the "meat "of the matter.But the construction of the time line is both horizontal and vertical,both distance and depth.Which,finally,makes it rather unwieldy on paper.What I am saying is that it needed other dimensions,that history is not a matter of dates,and only disreputable or unimaginative teachers take the "impartial " date approach,thereby killing all interest in the subject at a very early age for many students.
(I knew,in a perfect world,I would not be forced to choose a single course of study,that I would have time for all these interests. I could gather up all my desires and count them out like valentines.)
The Victorians caught my eye almost instantly with their strange and sometimes ugly ideas about architecture and dress and social conventions.Some of it was pure whimsy,like a diorama in which ninety-two squirrels were stuffed and mounted,enacting a basement beer-and-poker party,complete with cigars and green visors pulled low over their bright eyes;or a house that displayed a painting of cherubs,clad in strips of white linen,flying above the clouds with an identical painting hidden,right next to it,under a curtain in which the same cherubs —babies though they were —are completely nude.Or a privileged Texas belle 's curio cabinet that contained a human skull and blackened hand.Or still another young woman (wealthy daughter of a prominent man)who insisted on gliding through the family mansion with a handful of live kittens clinging to the train of her dress.
I enrolled in graduate school.Then I lost interest.I cared and then I didn 't care.I wanted to know as much about the small,odd details that I discovered here and there when looking into the past as I did about Lenin 's secret train or England 's Victorian imperial- ism or a flawless neo-Marxist critique of capitalism.
There were things that struck me as funny,like the name Bushrod Washington,which belonged to George 's nephew,or the man who painted Mary Freake and her baby,known only as the Freake Limner.And I like that sort of historical gossip;I mean,is it true that Catherine the Great died trying to copulate with a horse? And if not,what a strange thing to say about someone.Did Thomas Jefferson have a lengthy,fruitful affair with his slave Sally Hem- ings?What does that say about the man who was the architect of the great democratic dream?What does it say about us?Did we inherit the dream or the illicit,unsettling racial relationship?
This sort of thing is not considered scholarly or academic or of consequence,these small footnotes.And perhaps rightly so.Of course,I loved the important,rigorous historical inquiry as well. What I think I wanted was both things,the silly and the sublime; which adds up to a whole picture,a grudgingly true past.And out of that past truth a present reality.
You could say I was having trouble linking the two.
I wished for history to be vital,alive with the occasional quirk of human nature (a little "seriojovial ");I imagined someone saying to me, Finn,what ever gave you the idea that history was any sort of liv- ing thing?Really.Isn 't that expectation just the least bit contradictory?
Then Sam asked me to marry him.
It seemed to me a good idea.
Yet it somehow led me back to my educational concern,which was how to mesh halves into a whole,only in this case it was how to make a successful link of unmarried to married,man to woman,the merging of the roads before us.When Heathcliff ran away from Wuthering Heights,he left Cathy wild and sad,howling on the moors,I am Heathcliff,as if their love were so powerful,their souls so seamlessly mated,that no division existed for them,save the cor- poreal (though I tend to believe they got "together "at least once), which is of little consequence in the presence of the spirit.
All of which leaves me wondering,astonished,and a little put off.How does one accomplish such a fusion of selves?And,if the af- fection is that strong,how does one avoid it,leaving a little room for the person you once were?The balance of marriage,the delicate, gentle shifting of the polished scales.
Let me say that I like Sam tremendously.I love him truly.
The other good idea was spending the summer with my grand- mother Hy Dodd and her sister Glady Joe Cleary.Their relationship with me is different from that with the other grandchildren;we share secrets.And I probably talk to them a little more than my cousins or their own children do.I think they have a lot to say and I am more than willing to hear it.All of it.Whatever strikes them as important.
To me,they are important.
So my days are now spent watching the quilters come and go, lazily eavesdropping on the hum of their conversation and drifting off into dreams on my great-aunt 's generous porch;thinking about my Sam,my sweetheart.Or lying on my back,in the shade,in Aunt Glady 's extravagant garden,removing the ice cubes from my tea, running them across my face,neck,and chest in an effort to cool down from the heat.
I could wander over to the Grasse swimming pool,but it is al- ways so crowded.Sophia Richards says you never know who you 'll meet there —as if I want to meet anyone.As if I am not already stay- ing in a house that has quite a bit of "foot traffic."
The quilters have offered to make a bridal quilt in honor of my marriage,but I tell them to Please continue with what you are doing as if I never arrived to stay for the summer .Sometimes I say, I can 't think about that now (as if anyone can think clearly in this peppery heat).I can see this puzzles them,makes them wonder what sort of girl it is who "cannot think about " her own wedding..
This amuses me as well,since,at age twenty-six,I have lost track of the sort of girl that I am.I used to be a young scholar;I am now an engaged woman.Not that you cannot be both —even I understand that —yet I cannot fathom who I think I am at this time.
Copyright 1994 by Whitney Otto
1. How To Make An American Quilt moves between a more traditional story-telling format and a more educational series of sections that focus on the making of quilts, and the historical significance around them. What do you think of these sections of the novel? How did they add to your experience of the story?
2. The novel plays with point of view and perspective, sometimes switching between characters. In several sections, the narrative refers to you. Who does this you refer to? How do you feel about the use of this alternating perspective?
3. Would you consider the women in the quilting circle to be friends? Do they like each other? What purpose does the quilting circle serve in their lives?
4. What is the effect of telling these stories through a group of main characters as opposed to focusing on a few characters? Do you like or identify with some of the characters better than others? Which ones? Ms. Otto also offers the reader a variety of stories in this novel rather than one central character. What is the effect of this variety?
5. In an attempt to deal with her feelings of betrayal, Glady Joe uses broken fragments of china to create a sort of mosaic, or collage, on her walls. What do you make of her impulse to do this? Why does she do this?
6. Sophia is a very physically powerful and exciting character as a young woman who undergoes a painful transformation. What do you think caused this change to take place in her?
7. In her interview, Whitney Otto says that she would like to be considered an American writer and not a woman writer. Why does she say this? Do you agree with her? Are there certain authors that you considerspecifically women writers?
8. After the death of Constance 's husband, Em 's husband Dean takes to spending long amounts of time with Constance. They are not physically involved, yet they seem to have a powerful connection. Do you consider their relationship a betrayal of Em? Why or why not?
9. After Laury enlists, his friend, Will, begins to call Laury 's mother, Corrina, on the phone and they discuss apparently inconsequential things. Why do you think Will does this? Why do they seem to have such a special connection?
10. Anna and her great-aunt Pauline own a special quilt called The Life Before . Pauline 's employer 's wife covets this quilt. What is it about this quilt that makes it so special?
11. Constance, by her own admission, has trouble making friends especially with other women. Yet she manages to become good friends with Marianna. What do you think is the reason for their friendship? What draws them together?
12. At the end of the novel, Finn says, "I 'll tell you what makes me happy about marrying Sam, that is, about marrying in general:I know our marriage has just as good a chance of being wonderful as it does of missing the mark."Why does she say this? And why would such a thought make her feel happy about marriage?