Saturday, January 2, 2010

Stand the Storm, by Breena Clarke

For the Historical Tapestry Blog Challenge - C is for Clarke

I have, like many people I assume, two contradictory tendencies as a reader: one, I am a coward and hate to see beloved characters submitted to trauma; two, I am a voyeur and love the thrill of adventure that comes from characters in danger. Ideally, these two spirits, one on each shoulder, can be satisfied simultaneously with a story that endangers the characters but doesn't dash them continuously to the rocks (Elizabeth Gaffney's Metropolis comes to mind). However, because I am more of a tender-heart than an ambulance-chaser, I am satisfied with books that are, on balance, gentle with their characters.

Which means that I was able to enjoy Breena Clarke's charming Stand the Storm. The story follows a slave, Sewing Annie, and her family as they use their prodigious sewing and knitting skills to weave their way through the treacherous antebellum world in Maryland and Georgetown. Halfway through the book Annie is called by her son Gabriel to see bodies floating down the Potomac River, jetsam from a nearby battle, and the narrator observes, "Of late, every day brought a sight to pull a soul from her chair." For the most part, Annie and her family are sideline observers, pulled from their chairs to watch the swirling changes around them, although they certainly aren't afraid of exercising their own agency when necessary. Those moments provide breaths of excitement, though the life of any black person during that time was fraught with tension regardless, and often that alone is enough to keep the reader going.

One of the loveliest themes of the book is Sewing Annie's fear of perfection - that a quilt, a line of stitches, a bit of embroidery, if too perfect will attract the attention of the Devil. She therefore slaps the hands of her talented children, throwing flaws into their work. Literature itself is a tapestry, a woven work, and in the end Clarke seems to give us a twist, throwing in an imperfection just when things seem too good to be true. It is beautifully done.

A note: Since this was the end-of-December challenge, I thought it appropriate to choose a book written by a black author, in honor of Carleen Brice's Buy a Book By a Black Author and Give it To Someone Who's Not Black Month. (Lots of great fiction written by black authors apparently get shelved in the African American Interest sections, where white folks like myself fear to tread, or at least never think to go. So here's for trying to break boundaries!)


Marg said...

Sounds like a great reason for reading this book, and an interesting read!

Thanks for your continued participation in the ABC's of Historical Fiction.

Rowenna said...

Thanks for sharing--I too had heard of "Buy a Book...Month" and this is a fabulous example of a book worth passing on--I hadn't heard of until now, and it sounds just beautiful.

Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

I love what you said about your two spirits! I think I'm a bit like that, too. This sounds like a very interesting book.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma