How to Make an American Quilt

How to Make an American Quilt

by Whitney Otto


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“Remarkable . . . It is a tribute to an art form that allowed women self-expression even when society did not. Above all, though, it is an affirmation of the strength and power of individual lives, and the way they cannot help fitting together.”—The New York Times Book Review

An extraordinary and moving novel, How to Make an American Quilt is an exploration of women of yesterday and today, who join together in a uniquely female experience. As they gather year after year, their stories, their wisdom, their lives, form the pattern from which all of us draw warmth and comfort for ourselves.

The inspiration for the major motion picture featuring Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, and Maya Angelou

Praise for How to Make an American Quilt

“Fascinating . . . highly original . . . These are beautiful individual stories, stitched into a profoundly moving whole. . . . A spectrum of women’s experience in the twentieth century.”Los Angeles Times

“Intensely thoughtful . . . In Grasse, a small town outside Bakersfield, the women meet weekly for a quilting circle, piercing together scraps of their husbands’ old workshirts, children’s ragged blankets, and kitchen curtains. . . . Like the richly colored, well-placed shreds that make up the substance of an American quilt, details serve to expand and illuminate these characters. . . . The book spans half a century and addresses not only [these women’s] histories but also their children’s, their lovers’, their country’s, and in the process, their gender’s.”San Francisco Chronicle

“A radiant work of art . . . It is about mothers and daughters; it is about the estrangement and intimacy between generations. . . . A compelling tale.”The Seattle Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345388964
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/1994
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 241,243
Product dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.53(d)

About the Author

Whitney Otto is the bestselling author of How to Make an American Quilt (which was made into a feature film), Now You See Her, and The Passion Dream Book. A native of California, she lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

At first,I thought I ould study art.Art history,to be exact. Then I thought,No,what about physical anthropology?—a point in my life thereafter referred to as My Jane Goodall Period.I tried to imagine my mother,Sarah Bennett-Dodd (called Sally by everyone with the exception of her mother),camping with me in the African bush,drinking strong coffee from our battered tin cups,much in the way that Jane did with Mrs.Goodall.I saw us laid up with match- ing cases of malaria;in mother/daughter safari shorts;our hands weathering in exactly the same fashion. Then,of course,I remembered that I was talking about my mother,Sally,who is most comfortable with modernity and refuses to live in a house that anyone has lived in before,exposing me to a life of tract housing that was curious and awful.

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.

Reading Group Guide

1. How To Make An American Quilt moves between a more tradi- tional 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 sec- tions of the novel? How did they add to your experience of the story?

2.The novel plays with point of view and perspective,some- times 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 char- acter.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 consider specifically 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 be- come 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 be- ing 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?

Customer Reviews

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How to Make an American Quilt 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
booksandjava on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Eh. It's okay. For a change, I actually enjoyed the movie better. I'm not sure I'm going to hold on to this
debavp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although a short book, this was a difficult read. It never came together for me. I did not like the vague instructions of quilting. And the only thing I really learned about quilting was that it would be tedious from all aspects. As for the characters and their story--jeez, she was all over the map and I still don't know squat about them. By the time I got to the end, she just abrubtly stopped. I think if she had kept her focus on Glady and Hy or Marianna and Anna, or even the just the men, it would have much for a much better story. As it is you're left with a bunch of pieces and absolutely no clue as to how to put them together.
nancyK18 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Whitney Otto has fashioned a book which has an intersting theme. The book focuses on the lives of six members of a quilting bee. While these days there have been books on book groups, knitting groups, etc., this was one of the first books to tell the story of people through a group acitvity.
ennie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After 88 pages of this slow-moving book filled with alternating chapters of quilting instructions and the stories of women in a sleepy California town, I gave up. The movie was much better.
arelenriel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It is a cute little story about several generations of a California family and their friends. I would definitely reccomend this for anyone looking for a good summer book.
anikins on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
a celebration of wonderful things about ordinary women. otto writes like the women in her book quilt--patches of stories, told one at a time, and sewn/embroidered together to make one complete, enjoyable and touching read.
wwjules on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite books! Many of the women in my family quilt, but I was never interested. This book's depictions of friendship between women, the power of working together on something, and the way a quilt can tell your story are so powerful. I immediately understood the allure of quilting, and have become a quilter, myself. I love the way quilting connects me to the other women in my family and in my life, and I have reread this book over and over so that I can recapture the passion I feel for quilting.
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songcatchers More than 1 year ago
How to Make an American Quilt is a fairly interesting story. There is a lot of quilt talk and by the end of the book I was wanting to start my own quilt. The story has quite an array of characters which makes it hard to keep their stories separate. On top of that, each character has only one chapter in which their life story is told and that makes it hard to remember much about that person by the end of the book. If I read it again I think I'd get more out of it. Maybe.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story of friends who help each other through good and bad times. And form lasting bonds in which they form a club of sewing the pices of a quilt together binding their lives and healing each other through good and bad moments in their lives.