|The Thread Collectors / Shaunna J. Edwards & Alyson Richman|
NY: Graydon House, c2022.
I'm featuring a novel this week, one that is co-written by two friends, aiming to give a different perspective on the American Civil War. It's set in 1863, and moves between chapters told from the viewpoints of our two main characters, Lily (a New York Jewish wife) and Stella (a Creole woman in New Orleans who is the mistress of a white man but in love with a black man).
The dual perspectives add to this book. It looks at the Civil War from a woman's point of view, as well as those of the Jewish and Black communities; it examines love, family ties - or fractures, history, music, racism, and of course sewing and thread make their way through the story in meaningful ways.
I can't summarize the plot, there's too much in it. However, the basic outline is that Stella's William has run away to join a regiment accepting black soldiers. To help him, she stitches a map from threads she's pulled from household items. These maps become much in demand and she finds herself surreptitiously making many for local families. All this while dealing with her family legacy of being claimed by a white man as a kind of mistress at the right age, as a way of staying alive.
Lily, on the other hand, has her eyes opened to wider realities once her husband Jacob joins up and is sent south. She gets involved in war work to support him, which includes a lot of sewing and bandage making. She eventually travels south herself to find him when his letters stop.
William and Jacob are both musicians and coincidentally end up in companion units, where Jacob befriends him -- unheard of at this time. Their experiences and developing relationship make up a lot of the book, which we see from their eyes, not from a distance. This does mean that there are some horrific events included, so be aware. But they are all based in real events or stories, and it's important to remember that.
The tone of the chapters varies slightly depending on who's telling it, but the book overall is well edited and the narrative is smoothly told. It's a bit long in some ways - some of the backstory could have been tightened up, for me anyhow. There were some parts that felt a little coincidental, but were needed to keep the story going. These few small caveats were the only issues I had with an otherwise very unusual and compelling read about this time in history. I thought the characters were fascinating and complex. I was especially drawn in by Stella and her sister, finding their story rich and full of life. I enjoyed how Stella upcycled and used the fibres around her to work toward freedom for many, and how this process strengthened her sense of self.
Definitely a great read for anyone who is interested in widening their view of American history, or loves a story of strong women swept up in big events. The sewing content is, of course, another plus for me!