A Quilt for Christmas
There’s nothing better for the holidays than a book you can escape into and that makes you feel good the whole way through. Sandra Dallas has written just that. Add the element of quilting and a slight tie to her 1996 bestseller, THE PERSIAN PICKLE CLUB, and you have the perfect heartwarming novel to help get any reader into the spirit of the season.
Dallas takes the reader back to Kansas in the 1860s. The brave men and women who have settled these prairies might not be living in “soddies” anymore, but it is still a tough life with never-ending work on the small farms that have sprung up across the land. Nothing is easy, as most children barely survive infancy, the summers are hot, and winter brings drifts of snow to contend with. Mules still pull plows (if the family can afford one), and hiring a threshing machine at harvest time is a luxury. But it’s a good life, neighbors helping neighbors, and these settlers know their hard work will pay off for their families and future generations.
Eliza Spooner has come to Kansas from Ohio with her husband, Will. They have a son, Davy, and Luzena, a daughter she birthed by herself on the kitchen table. The Spooners started out in a sod dug-out, a piece of muslin stretched across the ceiling to keep dirt from falling into their lives. But Kansas has been good to them, and home is now a log cabin with a loft for the children and a bedroom for the parents. Outside a barn houses the livestock and harvest, and nearby a pretty little creek runs across the property. Eliza adores her life on the prairie with Will, who she has loved since grade school, and her kids. She also enjoys quilting --- whether it is alone in the evenings by the fire or at weekly sewing bees with her friends: Mercy Eagles, Anna Bean and Ettie Espy. They have been quilting together for years --- sharing scraps of cloth, recipes and the latest county news over log cabin quilts for church picnics, barn raising quilts for newlyweds, or just blankets for their own beds.
"There’s nothing better for the holidays than a book you can escape into and that makes you feel good the whole way through. Sandra Dallas has written just that. Add the element of quilting and a slight tie to her 1996 bestseller, THE PERSIAN PICKLE CLUB, and you have the perfect heartwarming novel to help get any reader into the spirit of the season."
Enter the Civil War. Most of the prairie settlers have come here from the North, so sympathies lie with the Union. As the war continues, more and more of the Wabaunsee County men enlist and go off to fight “the Secesh.” Included in that count are all the husbands of the quilting group who call themselves “war widows.” Life gets even harder on the prairie as the women now have the responsibility for everything thrust on their shoulders. Most meals are meager, and it is not uncommon for a mother to go without a meal to ensure that her children get enough.
As the book opens, it is almost Christmas and Eliza has just finished a quilt for Will: a Stars & Stripes pattern she found in a four-year-old copy of Peterson’s Magazine. A neighbor soldier is home, preparing to return to Will’s troop, and she can send it to him along with some divinity candy she knows will never make it to the front line. But after all, the man is willing to take the extra baggage of the smaller-sized quilt with him the whole way back to Virginia. Eliza has poured her heart and soul into the quilt and imagines it covering Will every night, keeping him warm and safe. Once sent on its journey, she eagerly awaits a letter from him to confirm he has received the gift. Such a letter arrives a week before Christmas and brings her great joy for the holiday.
Other women are receiving letters of great sadness, informing them that their loved one has been killed. Missouri Ann Stark is one of these women, a young girl forcibly married into the nastiest, least desirable family in the County. She repeatedly claims that her husband, Hugh, was not like his mean brothers and father, but when she runs into Eliza in town after receiving the news, she says if she remains in the Stark household, she will have to marry the one-legged brother, and the abuse, both physical and verbal, will continue. She has a young daughter herself and implores Eliza to allow her to come live with her and help out on the farm. Eliza knows it is the right thing to do and agrees to pick her up at church on Christmas morning. A standoff in the sanctuary ensues with the Stark men, but Missouri Ann is protected by the men of the congregation and is able to leave in Eliza’s sleigh for a new life.
The two get along famously, Eliza appreciative of the much-needed help and the young woman’s company. Missouri Ann becomes part of the quilting group, despite the hesitance of the other three ladies due solely to her last name, and earns her place at the frame with tiny stitches and whimsical designs. Out of the five women, two are now true widows and a third is about to be.
As the pages turn, the women bond to help runaway slaves, support each other in childbirth, watch as new widows are courted, and in day-by-day survival. As the war ends, husbands begin to trickle home --- some who were believed dead, others who still live but have seen so much trauma that their minds will never be the same.
A QUILT FOR CHRISTMAS is a lovely story about quilting and friendship; love and war; hate and forgiveness; and women. Eliza and the other ladies of Waubaunsee County are strong, kind-hearted and good, and independent when they have to be --- exactly the kind of women needed to settle a new country and put down roots that will hold for generations.
Sandra Dallas gives a nod to THE PERSIAN PICKLE CLUB when Mercy Eagles says at one quilting session: “You think someday our granddaughters will sit like this over a quilt frame, maybe right here in Waubaunsee County, Kansas?” “I hope it won’t be in wartime” says Eliza, “I’d rather think of them stitching in happier days.” Seventy years later, their granddaughters will surround a quilting frame, and the worries of war, slavery and missing husbands will be surmounted by a growing depression. True to their heritage, though, they will dig down deep to find the strength to persevere through the hard times and enjoy life as it is given. At the same time, they will be savoring a few stolen moments each week spent with friends and needles, pouring their labors and love into a beautiful quilt.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on October 17, 2014