Leaving Gee’s Bend

A few weeks ago, I came across the mention of a novel that’s coming out in January 2010 called Leaving Gee’s Bend – it’s written by Irene Latham, an accomplished poet.  On her website, the author describes the book this way:


Every quilt tells a story.

When ten year old Ludelphia Bennett decides to make a quilt for her mama, she thinks it will tell the story of her quiet life in the isolated sharecropper community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. But when Mama gets deathly ill and rumors start flying about the “witches of Gee’s Bend,” life gets tangled and Ludelphia worries that it’s all her fault.

Determined to fix things, Ludelphia takes her needle and thread and leaves Gee’s Bend for the very first time. Her adventures take her across the river and into a world she could never have imagined — where there’s indoor plumbing and motorcars and white folks. As Ludelphia’s quilt grows, her understanding of the world grows too. But is it enough to save Mama?

At the heart of this story of survival and courage is the real-life 1932 raid on Gee’s Bend and the subsequent Red Cross rescue.


I got to ask Irene a few questions:
(Me:) You say that the novel began in November 2003 when you viewed an exhibit of Gee’s Bend quilts at the Whitney in NY. Was there an immediate connection – you know, “I have to write a book about the people that can do such a thing”? Or was it more that you saw how to integrate quilts and the people that make them into a book you wanted to write already?


(Irene Latham:) My reaction was absolutely deep and immediate. I walked through those rooms with a lump in my throat. I was moved by the stories of the quilt makers, the history contained within the fabric. The colors and textures spoke to me of unique lives — birth, death, sickness, hardship, family, love. And the voices… I simply could not get them out of my head.


(Me:) When you started your novel, did you already have an outline of where you wanted the book to go? That is, do you write knowing the outcome, or was it a mystery to you how things would wind up?


(I.L.:) I wrote three novels before I got to the one I was meant to tell all along – Ludelphia’s story. She started out as a minor character in an earlier novel, and she haunted me. When I finally started writing in her voice, I knew I had turned a corner. The one thing all four novels have had in common is that they are set during 1932 and include the historic raid on Gee’s Bend and subsequent Red Cross rescue. The rest of the story evolved without any sort of grand plan.


(Me:) What was your first visit to Gee’s Bend, post-exhibit, like? What made an impression(s) on you?

(I.L.:) The thing that struck me was how rural and untouched (by comparison) it still is. Unpaved dirt roads stretch in all directions. Cows wander in the road. Clothes are strung on clotheslines. Sure they have ferry service now to Camden, but the air still feels pure and clean, like you’ve stepped back in time.

(Me:) Do you ever find it hard to separate the Gee’s Bend, the place from Gee’s Bend, the people?


(I.L.:) Yes, in the same way New York City embodies the characters of Sex and the City (and the characters embody New York City), Gee’s Bend and its people are inseparable. It’s just so unique geographically, so remote. I know that is a huge part of my attraction to the area and its history.


(Me:) How did you get the idea about the “witches of Gee’s Bend”?


(I.L.:) One of the unexpected things I unearthed in my research was the superstitions in Gee’s Bend. Like putting devil’s lye under the front steps to ward off evil spirits. Or placing a sifter under the bed so that a spirit would be so busy counting the holes that it would forget what it came for. Enter my imagination… and a memory from childhood of a rumor about a friend being “evil.” I knew it wasn‘t true, but not wanting to be the center of any controversy, I just kept my mouth shut about it. Writing this story gave me a chance to re-do that experience.


(Me:) What is your hope for this book (other than…you know…it be picked by Oprah…hahaha!)?


(I.L.:) I hope readers (including Oprah!) will take this message away from reading Leaving Gee’s Bend: even if you are barefooted and don’t have a map to guide you and the path is unknown… go your own way. Create the life you want. And tell your story in whatever way that makes sense to you – maybe even in a quilt.


(Me:) Are you a quilter, or is quilting a handcraft in your family?


(I.L.:) I married into a quilting family — Ludelphia is named for my husband’s late grandmother who showed me how to quilt. And I am the daughter of an amazing seamstress. I can put in a decent stitch, but I can only dream of creating the things she does.


(Me:) How did you go about getting the book published? Did you send copies to the big publishers and hope for the best, or you already had an agent who represented your work, or…?


(I.L.:) My dream was to be one of those slush pile miracles, so at I first submitted only to editors. I collected a few warm rejects, but no sale. Before long I got really impatient. So I decided to let that dream go and create a new one: find an agent. I sent my manuscript to the one agent I had heard speak at a SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, and miracle of miracles, she thought she knew just the editor for my story. From the point of seeing the exhibit to the point of sale was four years.


Can’t wait for this book to come out – I can tell just from her answers that it’s going to be great. I’ll post again closer to the release date…

…and I’m loving that custom of the sifter under the bed!!

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