May 1. Today’s the day that you’ll finally be able to read Rachel May’s epic 400-page book An American Quilt. Do yourself a favor and suggest this book for your book group or quilting bee because it’s the perfect read to discuss with quilters and bibliophiles alike.
The breadth and details in this book are as fascinating as the true story that forms the skeleton of the book. May delves into the history and background of not only an unfinished quilt made from fabrics from the 1830s but also the household of the couple who made it. It’s a tangled web indeed that spans from New England to the Caribbean as well as the historical backdrop of both white and slave family life during the era, the slave trade, trade routes between the agrarian south and the industrialized north and everyday details of 19th century life.
An American Quilt is a work of creative non-fiction, which is not a genre I’ve explored before so it’s worth explaining if it’s unfamiliar to you as well. May uses a bountiful supply of letters, photos, ephemera, the quilt itself and historical records from New England to the Caribbean to piece together the story with painstaking detail. Overlaid on the story of the quilt, however, is May’s own story as she takes us along as she pieces it all together. She describes her own journey of finding parts of the story and how she imagines the characters must have felt or interacted. Weaving together the facts she discovers, May also suggests possible context when she doesn’t have documentation to make the story more coherent.
May’s device of taking us on her journey to research the story of the quilt makes An American Quilt an intimate read. You’re there in the room as she delicately handles the quilt and reads the words “Seaman,” “Barbados,” and “casks” on the papers used for piecing the quilt. You go with her to Charleston where she combs through the files of the Historical Society to find more information of the characters we meet in the story. You sip coffee with her in Havana as she searches for information on the slaves she’s researching. For me, this is what brings so much life to An American Quilt. There are two parallel stories unfolding as you read. May also takes you on occasional “field trips” to give the reader historical context on how fabric was dyed at the time, how Rhode Island and Charleston, South Carolina became so closely linked in trade, what medicine was like for slaves, how rum production was linked to the slave trade and how the legal system treated slaves for example.
Reading An American Quilt reframes the way many of us will see historical quilts moving forward as not just the quaint product of the maker but as also having an additional complex backstory of the lives, culture and commerce that were part of the production of the cloth and the making of the quilt itself.