I picked up Leaving Gee’s Bend at the library because I knew Irene Latham to be an Alabama author. She had visited some local schools in the past, and while I didn’t attend any of those visits, she was definitely on my radar. Add to this the fact that a good friend of mine is an avid quilter who has taught me a thing or two about quilting, so I already knew a little bit about Gee’s Bend and its heritage. I was primed for a story I could recognize and/or identify with.
What I didn’t expect was a story that blew me away! It’s the story of Ludelphia Bennett, the ten year old daughter of an African American sharecropping family in the Black Belt of Alabama during the Great Depression. Shortly after the story opens, Ludelphia’s pregnant mother gives birth to a baby girl with Ludelphia and a neighbor, sixteen year old Etta Mae, in attendance. There are two problems, however: Mama is sick, not just pregnant; and Etta Mae, whom Ludelphia has always admired and relied on, has been accused of witchcraft. With Mama apparently growing worse, Ludelphia takes matters into her own hands and decides to leave Gee’s Bend for Camden, the nearest town with a doctor. She has to find a way across the river and find the doctor, all the while avoiding the likes of a certain sharecropping boss’s cruel wife. This is high adventure with a heart.
The best part about this story, though, is Ludelphia herself. Ludelphia’s voice in the story is simply beautiful:
I squeezed the water from the cloth pieces and spread them out on the sunny patch of pine straw to dry. I held the needle between my finger and thumb, gentle enough so as not to draw blood. Such a tiny little thing. But just the touch of it made me feel better. Like right between my fingers I was holding a piece of home. (89)
You see, Ludelphia has a bad eye, and so her Mama taught her how to quilt instead of insisting that she do field work. Quilting is Ludelphia’s solace and figures heavily into the plot of the story. In the end, Ludelphia learns some things about herself and home. She doesn’t exactly save the day in the way she expects, but the story has a very satisyfing ending. Irene Latham is not only a master at using dialect very unobtrusively, she also has a talent for figurative language. Again, Ludelphia’s voice is unforgettable.
This is just a beautiful story. This book most definitely gets a Highly Recommended from me! I’m pretty sure it will make my Best of 2010 list. Although it is classified as juvenile fiction, anyone who enjoys a good story with a winsome protagonist would like this one. You can read another short excerpt from the novel here, or you can learn more about the author by visiting her website. She even has a blog! I’m not making any promises, but there’s a good chance that I’ll have a chance to interview Irene Latham for Hope Is the Word!
It turns out that my girls and I have been enjoying some picture books about quilting lately, too. I hope to have another quilting and books post up later this week! Stay tuned!