Novels Stitch Tightly Woven Tales Of Freedom Alan Cheuse reviews two historical novels, both with protagonists immersed in sewing and slavery: Breena Clarke's Stand the Storm and Frances de Pontes Peebles' The Seamstress.


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Novels Stitch Tightly Woven Tales Of Freedom

Novels Stitch Tightly Woven Tales Of Freedom

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Cover of Breena Clarke's 'Stand the Storm'
Stand the Storm, by Breena Clarke, Hardcover, 336 pages

Read an excerpt of Stand The Storm.

cover of Frances de Pontes Peebles' 'The Seamstress'
The Seamstress, by Frances de Pontes Peebles, Hardcover, 656 pages

Read an excerpt of The Seamstress.

Two new historical novels, both featuring protagonists who are immersed in sewing and slavery, caught my eye recently: Stand the Storm, the second novel by Breena Clarke, takes us back to the District of Columbia during the Civil War; and The Seamstress, a first novel, by Brazilian-born Chicago resident Frances de Pontes Peebles, is set in Brazil in the 1930s.

The main character of Stand the Storm is a former slave named Gabriel Coats, who has small hands and a knack for sewing. It's a skill he picked up from his mother back on the Virginia plantation, and he uses it to help buy his freedom.

Gabriel's struggle to become his own man and make a life for himself in the city is the focus of the novel, but there is a great deal going on around him. The Civil War is under way, and Washington, D.C., is in turmoil. Slaves are attempting to make their way north to freedom, and the Confederate army is advancing on the city.

As the nation wars around him, Gabriel practices his trade, first helping a Jewish tailor, then eventually setting out on his own. In his new, tentative freedom, he works for money as well as respect, crafting the many small stitches that hold a life together. Likewise, Stand the Storm knits the reader into the lives of former slaves in momentous times, one delicate, painstaking sentence at a time.

As it happens, two sewing sisters stand at the center of Peebles' appealing first novel, The Seamstress. Emilia and Luzia Coelho are country girls and gifted seamstresses, raised by their widowed aunt in a hilly hamlet in the drought-ridden region of northeast Brazil.

When a band of anti-government cowboy rebels, known as cangaceiros, raids their hamlet, Luzia is willingly abducted by the band's leader, a scar-faced peasant rebel known as the Hawk. She becomes seamstress to the rebels and falls in love with the Hawk.

Emilia, meanwhile, enters into a marriage of convenience with a visiting city boy and moves to the coast of Brazil. As romantic as the story sounds — and Peebles has made an agonizingly romantic story in the best sense of the word — The Seamstress takes place against the political turmoil of modernizing Brazil and the growing threat of Nazism in Europe.

It's odd how two books about characters who sew turn out to be about characters who want their freedom, but good stories don't grow out of thin air. They begin with a writer's keen sense of narrative and sharp sense of observation. As Sewing Annie, the mother of Gabriel Coats, says of her tailor son, "He was born to this work, and he is the better of most at it ..." She could be speaking about this pair of talented new writers.

Excerpt: 'The Seamstress'

The Seamstress
By Frances de Pontes Peebles
Hardcover, 656 pages
List price: $25.95

Chapter One — Emília

Taquaritinga do Norte, Pernambuco

March 1928

Beneath her bed, Aunt Sofia kept a wooden box that held her husband's bones. Each morning Emília heard the rustle of starched bedsheets, the pop of Aunt Sofia's knees as she knelt and tugged the box from its resting place. "My falecido," her aunt whispered, because the dead were not allowed names. Aunt Sofia called him this on her better days. If she woke irritated—her arthritis bothering her, or her mind plagued with worries over Emília and Luzia—she addressed the box sternly as "my husband." If she had stayed up late the night before, rocking in her chair and squinting up at the family portraits, the next day Aunt Sofia addressed the box in a low, sweet whisper as "my departed." And if the drought worsened, or there was too little sewing work, or Emília had once again disobeyed her, Aunt Sofia sighed and said, "Oh my corpse, my burden."

This was how Emília guessed her aunt's moods. She knew when to ask for new dress fabric and when to stay quiet. She knew when she could get away with wearing a dab of perfume and rouge, and when to keep her face clean.

Their rooms were divided by a whitewashed wall that rose three meters from the floor and then stopped, giving way to wooden posts that supported the roof beams and rows of orange tiles. Aunt Sofia's whispered prayers rose over the low bedroom wall. Emília shared a bed with her sister. A dusty beam of light shone through a crack in the roof tiles. It entered their yellowed mosquito netting. Emília squinted. She heard the click of rosary beads rubbed between her aunt's palms. There was a grunt, then the hollow rattle of Uncle Tirço's bones as Aunt Sofia pushed him back beneath the bed. The daily dragging of the box had worn away a path in the floor—two indentations lighter than the oiled brick that paved each room of their house except for the kitchen.

Their kitchen floor was made of packed earth; it was orange and always damp. Emília swore its moisture seeped through the soles of her leather sandals. Aunt Sofia and Luzia walked barefoot on that floor, but Emília insisted on wearing shoes. As a child, she'd roamed the house barefoot and the bottoms of her feet had become orange, like her aunt's and her sister's. Emília scrubbed her soles with boiled water and a loofah in order to make them white, the way a lady's feet should look. But the stains remained and Emília blamed the floor.

That year, the winter rains had been sparse and the January rains had not come at all. Their neighbors' coffee trees had not flowered. The purple blossoms of the bean plants Aunt Sofia tended in their backyard had shriveled and they'd lost half of their yearly crop. Even the kitchen floor had become dry and cracked. Emília had to sweep it three times a day to keep the orange dust from filming up the pots, settling in the water jugs, and staining the hems of their dresses. She was saving to install a proper floor—sewing extra nightshirts and handkerchiefs for their employers, Colonel Pereira and his wife, Dona Conceição. When she had enough money, Emília would purchase half a sack of cement powder and the packed dirt would disappear under a thick coating of concrete.

Luzia's side of the bed was empty. Her sister was praying, no doubt, as she did every morning in front of her saints' altar in the kitchen pantry. Emília slipped under the mosquito netting and climbed out of bed; she had her own altar. On their dressing trunk was a small image of Santo Antônio, clipped from the latest issue of Fon Fon—her favorite periodical, which featured sewing patterns, romance serials, and the occasional prayer guide. Dona Conceição gave Emília backdated copies of Fon Fon and Emília's other cherished magazine, O Capricho. She kept them in three neat stacks under her bed even though Aunt Sofia insisted this would attract mice.

Emília knelt before the old black trunk. Fon Fon instructed you to place the image of Santo Antônio—the matchmaker saint—in front of a mirror with a white rose next to him. "Find your love match!" the magazine said. "A prayer to ensure you find the right beau." Fon Fon assured readers that three Our Fathers and three Ave Marias to Santo Antônio each morning would do the trick.

Emília had placed the saint's image next to her foggy mirror—it was a bit of glass the size of her palm that she had purchased with her savings. It was nothing compared to the full-length mirror in Dona Conceição's fitting room, but Emília could prop her little mirror on the dressing trunk and get a good look at her face and hair. There were no white roses in her town, though. There were no flowers at all. The hearty Beneditas that grew along the roadsides had lost all of their pink and yellow petals and had dropped their seeds onto the hard, dry ground. Aunt Sofia's dahlias hung their heavy heads and disappeared into their bulbs beneath the earth, hiding from the heat. Even the rows of cashew trees and coffee plants looked sickly, their leaves yellowed from constant sun. So Emília had sewn a rose from stray scraps of fabric; Santo Antônio would have to understand. She wrapped her hands together and prayed.

She was nineteen and already an old maid. The town gossips had predicted that she and Luzia would become spinsters, but for different reasons. Luzia's fate had been sealed with the accident she'd suffered as a child: at eleven, she'd fallen from a tall tree and nearly died. The misfortune had deformed her arm and left Luzia—the gossips proclaimed—slightly addled. No man would want a crippled wife, they said, much less one with Luzia's temper. Emília had no physical deformities, thank the good Lord. She'd had many suitors; they had turned up at the house like stray dogs. Aunt Sofia offered them coffee and macaxeira cake while Emília hid in her room and pleaded with Luzia to shoo them away.

Excerpted from The Seamstress by Frances Peebles. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

Excerpt: 'Stand The Storm'

'Stand the Storm'

Chapter One

A cruelly cold but bright sunshiny New Year's Day was when her mam was sold south to satisfy a debt incurred by the master. She and her mam had shared some honeyed cakes during the slack days at Christmastime. Both had enjoyed laughter and some resting. And then on New Year's Day young Annie's pallet was placed alongside that of Knitting Annie.

"Slaves ain't 'lowed to have shares of nothin'—no chick nor child," the woman said to the blubbering girl by way of consolation. "Master own it all."

Female slaves on Ridley Plantation in this time were generally called by a variation of the name Ann. The young girl apprenticed to the older woman who knitted was known as Annie-that-sews or Sewing Annie. She was thus called to distinguish her from the slave women they called Cookananny and from her mentor, Knitting Annie. There was as well the one known as Field Annie, lovingly called Fela, who led the gang of women that cleared brush for planting and harvesting crops.

As Sewing Annie grew, her reputation was gained mostly upon her legendary skills at knitting rather than pure out-and-out sewing. But she kept the name Sewing Annie to thwart confusion.

Knitting Annie was the all-time leader on Ridley Plantation in production of knitted work. She far outstripped lengths accomplished by the eight other slaves who did knitting work and also Mrs. Clementine Stern Ridley, sister-in-law of the master and a needlewoman of repute. She also exceeded the production of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Brackley Ridley, the master's wife, whose embroidery and tatting were considered of the finest quality in southern Maryland and whose hands seemed always to be occupied with threads or yarn. The closets in the main house were full of quilts, coverlets, counterpanes, and antimacassars, for the two Mrs. Ridleys assuaged their isolation with work on these favorite pastimes. Knitting Annie's expert needlework put her around the table at quilting bee time, working elbow to elbow with the mistresses. They greatly esteemed her skills. And it was surely the consideration of this that lightened her travails.

Knitting Annie and Sewing Annie were installed in the ground-floor room of a plank cabin they shared with a changing group of two or three other female hands. There the needlewoman and her charge slept upon a plain bedstead fitted with a straw mattress and a feather mattress. Knitting Annie guarded their mattresses and commanded complete charge of them. The morning after Sewing Annie lost control of herself and made water on the bedclothes, Knitting Annie only grunted and soaked the clothes in a bath of her own concoction. The sheets and covers were pummeled to sweet cleanness and the girl was cajoled not to soil them.

Knitting Annie covered their bed with a sweet old quilt. This quilt was as plain as any other used by the slaves at Ridley, but its fineness was nevertheless indisputable. The back was made from feed sacks, as were all the others, but the top had a myriad of patterned pieces and bright solids of every kind. This was where scraps from whatever came to them as cloth ended up. Worn places were constantly, relentlessly patched, and it could perhaps be said the bedcloth—from patching—had metamorphosed from one thing to another. It was nearly a completely different coverlet than when it had begun, though it remained of one piece. It was old, old—had been done long before Knitting Annie was born.

The fineness of the old bed quilt was the underside, which was so flawlessly stitched and so intricate that to follow the spiraling stitches would hypnotize the eyes staring at it. Knitting Annie traced the intricacies, the whorls, with her finger. Sewing Annie fell asleep upon ruminations about where exactly the thread had begun its journey in this cloth, for each tiny nip and tuck of it appeared identical. However, this quilt cover did shun the straight. Its stitches were intermittently, deliberately broken to spoil the perfect. A needleworker of Knitting Annie's skill could come close to making it just so, but the devil would like that too much, the old people said. Thus the quilt had proper irregularity so that the devil would not grab up the two needleworkers in their sleep.

Knitting Annie often repeated, "The favored top for sleeping under, girl, is the Drunkard's Path. The devil will be sure to spurn it."

One such perfect quilt—not the Drunkard, but a complex beauty—was made at Ridley and caused no end of trouble in the night. It was said to entwine the legs of any who slept with it. Despite its beauty, Mistress disposed of the perfect quilt as a wedding gift to a young girl of middling favor in the county who was to go westward with her husband.

"Them threads was worked too sweet and even," Knitting Annie maintained as cautionary.

Knitting Annie was kind to her charge and looked after the girl as well as one who is a slave can look after another one who is a slave. It was her duty to pass to this young Annie all of what she knew about knitting and piecing together the knitted garments and the quilting, the spinning and dyeing, and what all else. She passed on all, as well as a few choice secrets having to do with which plants were best for dyes.

As part of the mushrooming prosperity of Ridley Plantation in those years, the needlewoman and her young assistant worked inside the loom house that Master built some few feet from the big house. Mistress Ridley prized hands that knew the needlework skills and the needlewomen were under her direct supervision. She checked output and recorded in her logbook detailed information regarding the projects the needleworkers undertook and completed.

The joint-aching chill of working in low-lying marshy areas on Ridley Plantation in January and February and oftentimes in cold, cold March was assuaged by stockings, blankets, socks, gloves, tunics, shawls, shirts, and pantaloons produced by Knitting Annie and her shadow, Sewing Annie. Knitting Annie had been born to the tasks in production of garments for the Ridley slaves. Her mam, a vague figure at the back of her thoughts, had labored upon a spinning loom. None in their line had ever known work other than the needlework.

"Hunt and peck and Ginny crack corn, and hunt and peck and two and three and four and . . . ," Knitting Annie sing-songed to pass the time and set the tone. There was always the threat of fieldwork to keep them hard at their duties.

Knitting Annie carried needles and yarn in the deep pocket slit of her skirt and worked upon these consistently when her hands were not otherwise engaged. Sewing Annie adjusted the tempo of her needlework to that of her mentor. When Knitting Annie worked calmly and contemplatively she set a similar pace for the girl. The girl learned to speed her click-clacking when Mistress hovered, as Knitting Annie was wont to do. Sewing Annie learned her figuring—a series of tallies with her fingers—from Knitting Annie. Skilled tallying was the hallmark of Knitting Annie's work—nay, of any needleworker. So it could be said that she who had no aptitude for tallying could never rise as a needleworker.

At noon, Mistress Ridley retired to her boudoir for rest. The two Annies worked throughout the afternoon, though they allowed their fingers to move slowly during this time. This was the time of day for which the Annies earned their legend as the lucky ones who sat upon their duffs. Wary of being caught at a nap, though, the older woman stayed alert as the child was allowed to drowse. Knitting Annie dipped into the youngster's lap from time to time and worked some rows on the child's assignments. And if the youngster's work became knotted or plagued by runners, the older woman picked up her slack for fear they would both suffer. She had soft feelings for the little pup and nerves that craved after calm.

Mistress did not rest for long of an afternoon. She would emerge after precisely two hours' doze and begin a supervisory circuit of the loom room. She measured and counted the slave women's output to certify that time had not been wasted.

"She'll be watering the stock!" Mistress threatened when aging Knitting Annie's count fell. She said she'd put old Knitting Annie out in the barn to tote water for the animals were she to get so old she couldn't keep up. As the years passed, the maturing Sewing Annie picked up her mentor's slack when it came to it. She carried along the old woman's work that fell into her lap when the old precious slumped forward and snored. Some nights the bone-tired girl advanced Knitting Annie's work while she slept just as the old woman had done for her. She who had grown moderately tall and solid in the upper body and graceful and dexterous in the hands let the older one rest in a chair and blow gas. Sewing Annie worked ten more rows with her own eyes completely closed. The trick was easily done. It became her habit to go some little bit more after she had said, "Now is the time to stop." It strengthened her to push on — to leave the work well advanced for the next day before lying down to rest.

"My lap is bloody. I'm not expecting it. But my lap is got bloody. When I stan' up I see the stain a big, pear-shape, red-brown mess on the front ma' dress. A funny kind o' thing." Knitting Annie had never been a chatterer, but she was a dreamer and a dream interpreter. She had the habit of telling her dreams to Sewing Annie. She woke up one morning talking and unable to stay still. "Name ain't no Annie. Ma' name's Abiba — Ah-beebaa," she said. Knitting Annie showed her gums, and her loose teeth clacked. She continued telling. "I was scared. Good right to be. I look down in ma' lap and I seen a white man's head. That what make the bloody stain and I thought it was the moon blood. I woked up then."

Sewing Annie thought that she ought not let the old woman sit upright and sleep. She ought to be sure to lay her flat at night. They were tempting spirits to invade an old woman's dreams by leaving her upright through the dark night like she was a sentry. The old one was becoming chatty, slow, and unproductive, and she needed the night's whole rest.

Some months after the dream visited Knitting Annie, a blacksmith helper was brought to Ridley Plantation. Purchased to help the regular blacksmith, who had taken ill, he was a man of medium build with large shoulders and arms, at the end of which were hands shaped like mallets. These mallet hands were the main reason Ridley purchased him: "A nigger with hands like that will be useful to a blacksmith," he had said upon first seeing the slave in the Charleston market.

Knitting Annie died—wound down like a clock—on a stuffy afternoon in the loom room. The knitting she worked fell from her hands and her needles ceased sound. Sewing Annie felt all the air leave her body at the realization that Knitting Annie had gone. She sat and knitted a full five more rows before rising to call others to account for the old precious.

The old woman had in her prime been an expert gang leader for sewing and knitting, soap-making and yarn-dyeing. Her long suit was setting forth the steps to a task and pressing the workers to it. Over her lifetime she had forgotten more than the others had yet learned. Grief-stricken and shorthanded, Sewing Annie faltered and production fell off. Two girls, yet too small for fieldwork, became her assistants for toting and fetching. Neither of these children had aptitude for needlework. Thus the workload for Sewing Annie was punishing after the old woman's death.

Added to this was numbness and confusion. The old woman had been her constant and she felt like a stool that had lost a leg. She was impatient with sitting at the weaving loom and walked back and forth making a circuit of the room that she'd shared with the old woman—a room that now seemed shrunken. She stood at the doorway and worked upon her knitting. As it grew, Annie wrapped the length around her shoulders. She wore it as if it were her own shawl. Onlookers were disturbed. They all believed it was bad luck for a needlewoman to wrap herself in her own knitting while working on it.

Annie stood in the doorway and listened to the cadence of the blacksmith's blows. She recognized a love of regularity in the man who'd taken the place of the deceased blacksmith. Two deaths—another one to come! The new head blacksmith had a contemplative demeanor like hers. She heard it in the tone of his strokes. He gained momentum on the regular and rising movements just as she was used to doing. This was the technique that the old woman had taught her. He, too, could endure for the long term, for he credited rest and recovery deep in his work. He was productive as she was.

Old Knitting Annie had giggled when the young woman told her about dreaming of a snake pit.

"You're wanting a man. 'Tis a plain dream of woman's longing," she'd said when the tale came out. With the old woman gone, the yearning became keener.

"Your wrap is pretty, good woman," the blacksmith said, surprising her. She started, then came to herself and saw that she was standing in the doorway of the blacksmith's barn. He did not halt his strikes, but only looked at her when he spoke.

When she came again to stand in the barn door and knit, he was alarmed for her and also drawn to her. To protect her, he made a show of interest. He knew she'd only come to listen to the doleful hammer strikes. But Mistress was liable to think her gone from grief and sell her off. Bell grinned at her, though mostly her head was hung down. It was an unusual courtship—this first feigned interest.

"You're a pretty woman," he said after some days of looking at her. "Prettier than that shawl you're doin' up," he said, laughing. Indeed he brought out the bloom in her all at once with these words.

Permission was granted that the two could set up housekeeping in the cabin that Sewing Annie had shared with Knitting Annie. Until they joined Field Annie's gang, the two little girls who worked with Sewing Annie had to stay with them.

It didn't please Master Ridley for Bell and Annie to take up together. Some of his slaves he didn't want becoming permanent with anyone particular. It made it messier when the time came for a sale.

When baby Gabriel was born, fears began to fidget in Sewing Annie. As hard as she felt for Bell and feared a separation, she was ten times more bound to the babe. When Ellen came three years later, there was an increase in nervousness offset by a lulling into further happiness. The run of luck seemed to hold for Sewing Annie.

There were evenings of Gabriel as a bandy-legged toddler sucking on a sugar tit in the middle of the cabin floor. There were evenings of Ellen dandled on Bell's knee. There were hushed nights of Bell and Annie holding each other for dear life and true pleasure. There were stolen moments at first light or deep dark when Annie kneaded Bell's shoulders. There were secret suppers of corn pone and hog entrails and stolen delectables.

Bell yearned to formalize his relations with Annie. He wanted a marrying ceremony. He wished to stand up in front of the folks and proclaim that Sewing Annie was his woman and none other. He wanted to put a claim on his children. Much of this feeling was on account of being the blacksmith on the place. Working with the hammer was a point of distinction and it did raise Bell above other hands. He appealed directly to Master Ridley, who respected the man's abilities but was leery. Bell pointed out to Master that he and Annie had stayed together for a time and that they considered themselves to be good Christian folks. Bell would have gone on to mention the children, but he cut his appeal when he glimpsed the expression on Ridley's face. Days after, it worried Bell that he might have said too much to Master Ridley—that his reach had exceeded his grasp.

Sewing Annie had seen the face, too. She'd stood at Bell's left shoulder with her head inclined tight to the floor. She would not presume to enter the exchange between her man and her master. She turned herself to salt to remain there to listen and know. Her eyeballs swept from one side to the other without moving the lids, straining to interpret the faces of Bell and Master Ridley. She saw Ridley's displeasure and felt fearful.

Bell, expert at talking with the hammer, anvil, and bellows, was smart enough to know to clamp down and be dumb around the top folks. He said no more about marrying.

When Bell had his accident—accidental injury is what a blacksmith expects to meet him someday—the hammer rhythm stopped abruptly. His attention wavered? Who is to say? Bell lanced a great gash on his own forearm and the normally quiet man howled fiercely and ran out into the dirt yard in front of the smithy. The women working in the kitchen—they were closest—responded first to his hideous cries. The cook, running outside at full steam with a lard jar, slathered Bell's forearm.

Sewing Annie, nerves curdled when she heard the roar, ran out from the loom room, trampling her knitting in the dust. The two kitchen helpers, Annie, and the cook carried Bell to the cabin. Gabriel followed his mother. The toddling Ellen sat like a top in the dust staring at the women lifting, howling, and pulling and dragging to get Bell in the cabin.

Despite quick application of salve, Bell's wound festered. When the doctor was summoned, he told Ridley that the only way to save the whole man was to take off the rapidly rotting section of the forearm. Ridley agonized over maiming a slave blacksmith. There was money lost in destroying the arm of a blacksmith! " 'Tis the same as chopping off several hundreds of dollars!" he exclaimed to the physician. Reluctantly, he agreed to the amputation.

The accident felled the blacksmith like a tree, taking him down in a series of deep, agonizing cuts. Bell survived the operation but did not regain strength enough to raise himself from his bed for several weeks. Defined by his arms and mallet hands, he was half a hand after the doctor's work.

The last and most painful cut was that Jonathan Ridley settled a debt for farm tools with selling Bell to Cyrus Wilson, a neighbor, who used him as a general hand to fetch and carry.

Copyright © 2008 by Breena Clarke.