A Quilt of Words, by Haron Niederman
[amazon-product]1555660479[/amazon-product]Review by Martha Quillen
Western History – February 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine
A Quilt of Words: Women’s Diaries, Letters & Original Accounts of Life in the Southwest, 1860-1960
by Sharon Niederman
The best thing about this book is the title: A collection of writings about living in the southwest sounds intriguing.
Many of these narratives, though, were not written for publication. Niederman finds this desirable, but it just doesn’t work. As she says, “The authors usually did not hope for any audience beyond their relatives, friends, and descendants. Their literary effort went not to style but to their attempt at accurately reporting and describing what they observed — nature, fairly untrammeled, and new kinds of human interactions — and to the expression of their personal impressions and opinions. Each woman is writing about how she use her resources to cope, change, and grow.”
Unfortunately, a little style might have helped at times. The truth is, most of these narratives are boring, and some are downright confusing. Worse, most of these women didn’t write about how they coped, changed, or grew. Most, on the contrary, showed an instinct for obscuring their stories with heaps of details.
Agnes Miner, for example, begins her narrative:
“Early in the year 1859 my father, Marshall Silverthorne, decided to come to Colorado for his health, arriving in Denver May 17, 1859. Improving rapidly in health, he returned to Pennsylvania to bring back his family. With his wife and three children he started on his return trip to Denver early in March, 1860. We came by train to St. Louis, then by boat to Omaha. We were two weeks on the boat as we did not travel at night. After a short visit in Council Bluffs we outfitted for the trip. We were six weeks on the plains. We did not travel on Sundays. Mother devoted this day to washing, baking, and cooking for the following week.”
It would have been nice if she’d shared what she thought or felt about this trip, or (although she was perhaps too young to remember it firsthand) some of her parents’ impressions of the places they saw (which must have been talked about throughout her youth), but she didn’t.
The reading was far rougher, however, when you weren’t sure at all what the writer was talking about, which happened to me all too frequently, since many of the pieces in this collection came from personal correspondence.
The authors of those pieces obviously saw no reason to identify family members, or recount incidents necessary to understand the text. The selection from Grace Mott Johnson begins:
“They had been back from their historic trip to the Hopi Snake Dance for a week or more. (Mabel had taken cold, she thought, from sleeping on the ground during it, and said that had stopped her menstruation for a week.) Now, after lying around some days, she was all over this and seemed interested in doing something, but mostly, to judge from remarks dropped by her and others, in meeting Eve Young-Hunter before she and Mr. Young-Hunter went East again. They had been camping some distance from Taos and making various attempts to meet Mabel without coming to Taos where the former Mrs. Young-Hunter is still living near Mabel’s place…
“Since the former (I was about to say, the real) Mrs. Young-Hunter is ill or hysterical because of the divorce, and her husband’s marriage to Eve who was acting as Mabel’s housekeeper when they met, and which one feels was, indirectly at least, another case of Mabel’s separations of married people. Mary Young-Hunter is living next door to Mabel still, alone or with the daughter Gabriel in her home and studio acquired there two years ago…”
Furthermore, as is obvious in the foregoing excerpt from Johnson’s letter, there’s a lot of the material in these selections that doesn’t give much insight into life in the Southwest, or the times the authors lived in.
There are a few gems here and there, but most of this book is genuinely tedious. The authors came from different places and different eras, and all they had in common was that they lived in the same region. In the long run, it just wasn’t enough to give the reader much understanding of their lives.
These letters, diaries, and original accounts might have given a writer a fair start on any one of these women’s biographies. But there’s not enough about most of the women in A Quilt of Words to give the reader any understanding of their lives.
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