By: Irene Latham
Reviewed by: Beth Wilder
G.P. Putman’s Sons, 2010
As a crow flies, Camden, Alabama, is only about forty miles from the community of Gee’s Bend. But for ten-year-old Ludelphia Bennett, it might as well be on the other side of the earth. Ludelphia has never left the safety of her poor but closely-knit community, and she has no idea what lurks in the wider world. Set during the trying times of the Great Depression, Leaving Gee’s Bend chronicles the dangerous and exciting journey that Ludelphia must make to save her mother’s life.
When Ludelphia leaves Gee’s Bend to search for the medicine her Mama desperately needs, she encounters a raging river and the evil of racism. But she also discovers the kindness of strangers and the unconditional love of her own family. Along the way she documents her adventures the only way she knows how—with a needle and thread, stitching together a beautiful quilt to tell the story for her.
Birmingham author Irene Latham was inspired to write Leaving Gee’s Bend after seeing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend art exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The child of a seamstress herself, Latham grew up around textiles and appreciates the beauty and art of quilting, especially the history of the famous Gee’s Bend quilts. Though the story is pure fiction, Latham used many real families and historical events, such as the 1932 raid on Gee’s Bend, as the background for this stunning debut novel.
Latham tells this lyrical story through the eyes of Ludelphia. With her sing-song voice, the child transports us to a simpler time, a time when women still made quilts by hand and passed that legacy along to their daughters and granddaughters. Latham has a gift for using voice to drive her story. While she paints a picture of an idyllic but isolated life at Gee’s Bend, she also uses that same innocent voice to show us the horrors of racism and the terrors we are capable of inflicting on other humans.
Leaving Gee’s Bend is billed as a young-adult novel, but it is really a novel for everyone. After reading this book, I passed it along to my own twelve-year-old daughter. She embraced the story because she was able to read it and understand its meaning without interpretation from Mom. Being on the threshold of adulthood herself, she identified with Ludelphia’s fears as she headed out into that great big world alone. I love being able to share books like this with my children, much as the ladies of Gee’s Bend must love passing their gift of quilting along to theirs. Nov 2009
Editor’s note: Leaving Gee’s Bend will be officially released in January 2010.
Beth Wilder is a freelance writer living and working in Birmingham.