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An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery
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An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

3.06  ·  Rating details ·  77 ratings  ·  31 reviews
When we think of slavery, most of us think of the American South. We think of chattel slavery, of back-breaking fieldwork, and of cruel and inhumane treatment on plantations. We don’t think of slavery in the North, nor do we think of the grueling labor of urban and domestic/house slaves. Rachel May’s remarkable book explores the far reach of slavery, from New England to th ...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published May 1st 2018 by Pegasus Books
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3.06  · 
Rating details
 ·  77 ratings  ·  31 reviews

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Mar 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: edelweiss
Rachel May, an Assistant Professor at Northern Michigan University, was shown an 1830s hexogen quilt top with backing papers that revealed a glimpse into its history. In ornate handwriting were the dates 1798 and 1813 and the words rum, casks, West Indies, shuger.

Fascinated by this quilt, May, a quiltmaker and author of Quilting with a Modern Slant, researched the quilt's heritage and historical background. It took her on a six-year journey deep into a history we have conveniently forgotten, the
Ann Fisher
Jun 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
We seem to have arrived at a new time in our national reckoning with the sin of slavery. I'm thinking of Confederate monuments, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Isabel Wilkerson, the $20 bill, the new Legacy Museum in Alabama, the new National Museum of African American Culture in D.C. and much more. Rachel May's book makes an excellent contribution to this discussion.

The non-fiction book is anchored by an unfinished quilt, found in Providence, Rhode Island, that was begun by a Rhode Island woman, Susan Crouc
Megan Tarver
Jul 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. I was pleasantly surprised at the ease of reading what looked like a heavily academic historical book. Definitely a fascinating way to learn about history. My only qualm is that at times it was very repetitive. The author foreshadows, presents info, recaps and then sporadically returns to and repeats situations along the way. But then my mind did think about how that just continues to draw the whole story together as if a continuous thread was woven throughout the who ...more
Chris Wolak
Jan 26, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: dnf, tilton-st
This book started with great promise but by page 70 I was having my doubts. I read further, until page 130-something, and then let it go. I'm not exactly sure what "creative nonfiction" is supposed to be. I can understand taking some liberties with primary sources and making up stories/ connections/ feelings based around them, but some of the statements just got a little too ridiculous and far fetched and, well, pointless in some cases. Most surprising was the fact that the quilt wasn't really u ...more
Heidi Minor
Oct 13, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018-reads
As one who enjoys quilts this book reached out to me. Little did I know that the author would delve so throughly into the makers. Quilt top and notebook gave clues of the time but after much research and visitation Rachel May interlaces fiction and non-fiction for a read into the years before the Civil War and it's aftermath. Rachel May points out how the economy of the North and South benefited from trade that far too often was the work of the enslaved. "And the more I learn about the past, the ...more
Sep 21, 2018 rated it did not like it
Way too long-400 pages. Could have been trimmed by half. The author goes off on way too many tangents-clearly found lots of interesting material and wanted to include everything.
Jacqueline Roberts
Sep 07, 2018 rated it did not like it
Not an easy read to put it nicely. It was not well organized or well written. Somewhat repetitive, incoherent. Switched from historical facts to imaginings of thoughts and feelings of researched individuals. Not really the story of an unfinished historical quilt but rather a commentary on slavery.
Patricia dumas
Jul 26, 2018 rated it liked it
I just don't know how this book passed publication muster.

I enjoyed the history... the quilt piece descriptions, and the expanded story of the Crouch family, but, If I were an African American, I would try not to roll my eyes at Ms. May's understanding of African American history.

Imagining the actions and thoughts of people in this book is absolutely distracting and quite annoying. It fills up pages.

The book flys all over the place. People's names that are cited from research just appear, witho
Sheryl Lanciano
May 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
I would have liked this book better if she had stuck to interpreting the clues and facts of the quilt and left out her imaginary descriptions of the people who made it. I could also have done without the rantings about slavery. Yes, I think we can agree that it was a horrible part of U.S. history. But not all black people were paragons of goodness and not all white people were evil.
Sep 23, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
Abandoned. I’m glad I started the book, but lost interest before I finished. It’s an important topic that is well worth bringing to people’s attention, but I thought there was way too much speculation about possible scenarios, people’s feelings, etc. And it was often repetitive.
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
I was initially drawn to this book because it sprang from the discovery of a particular quilt, and because I anticipated a story of digging into the history of the person who made it. It's so much more than that. Rachel May was "sidetracked," if you will, from the story of the person who made the quilt to the stories of the people she and her family enslaved in early 19th century Charleston, South Carolina. Because the paper hex patterns used to shape the cloth were never removed, the words writ ...more
Aug 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a book that is all over the place. For some that is a deal breaker but for me it is simply an acknowledgment that this is how my mind grapples with the fact of slavery in the United States. It had its tentacles into everything and is relentless in its timelessness. It seems like it impacts every aspect of world history from the 15th century to our present day. I am not even sure that we could have market driven capitalism as we know it without the Atlantic slave trade. Among other things ...more
Aug 22, 2018 rated it it was ok
I'm sorry I couldn't give this a higher rating, because the genealogy and history combined with the story of an heirloom quilt are really fascinating for me. And the author has done a tremendous amount of research in archives and museums to track down the story of Susan Crouch's quilt, begun by her in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1830s and added to in the 1930s by a grand nephew, who also recorded some of its oral history. More of its history is actually stitched into it as temporary paper ...more
Jun 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
A historical examination of the evil known as slavery…

My thanks to my contacts at Pegasus Books, Iris Blasi, Katie McGuire, and Maia Larson, for my review copy of this book. You ladies rock!

Slavery is the indelible stain on American history, especially in the South. But slavery did not begin in America, nor did it end when slavery was abolished. Slavery has a long dark history and spans the globe. There are still slaves in the world today.

Along with the enslavement of the Negro race came prejudi
Oct 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This author-professor noticed quilt pieces in a museum archive that designated parts were made from "slave cloth." Her intellect, curiosity and nose for research lead her to plunge into tracking down the story of the family who made the quilt, and branch out into the entire panorama of the family's uneven history with the enslaved. The author herself is from New England, and through the years researching this book, she realized how Northerners were not the abolitionists they claimed to be since ...more
Oct 03, 2018 rated it liked it
Never judge a book by it’s cover. I knew this was nonfiction and centered around a quilt belonging to families with roots in Rhode Island and South Carolina. I didn’t expect Rachel May to attempt to blend the history of slavery with textile history with her beliefs and personal forays into these subjects. The final product is part scholarly investigation, part genealogy, part personal experience and lots of speculation. My main criticisms that the “what if, perhaps, imagine, picture this” passag ...more
Oct 01, 2018 rated it liked it
A very detailed history about families and their thoughts on slavery while being slave owners themselves. The quilt took the author to that moment in time. I thought she was creative with adding how things may have been or how the people thought at that time. This is how she filled in the gaps when she found bits and pieces of the families. Letters were interesting.

Editing was confusing. A couple of times the book referenced to a couple of images, but I did not find them. Also, it would be helpf
Sep 26, 2018 rated it liked it
I was disappointed in this book - to my surprise. The author, a quilter and historian, has explored the construction and story of a quilt in the archives of her university in Rhode Island. May is intrigued by the story of the husband and wife who have sewn it (and their great nephew who inherited it and explored its story) and uses historical records (and the letters that the family has packed with the quilt) to follow the lives of their enslaved household help. This is very interesting and I ce ...more
William M

This kind of book gives creative nonfiction a bad rep. May's knowledge of quilts is expert, but it was spread thinly and chaotically across a narrative that, I guess, was supposed to be evocative but quickly became annoying. I applaud her efforts to show how slavery tainted New England as much as South Carolina, and I sympathize with her difficulty in finding concrete records about the enslaved people. But she would have been better served to simply develop a fictional narrative to
Dec 18, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: mcls-audio, dnf
I quilt and like history, so I expected to enjoy this book. I listened to the audio book, narrated by Carrington MacDuffie. The narration was very good: clear, easy to understand. The book seemed to be well researched but the speculation, presuming, imagining, etc. added to the facts was too much. What was based in fact was lost among all the surmising, wondering, proposing. It would have been a bit easier to take if there were, say, one imagined scenario for each situation, but, no, there were ...more
Mary Churchman
Jan 11, 2019 rated it liked it
I bought based on short blurb in New Yorker. I like the idea of creative non-fiction, filling in the blanks of historical material, but there's too much of the author in this one. It seems more a memoir of her research and imagination than an account of the interesting subject. It's also longer than it needs to be - kind of loops around the material in redundant and non-linear fashion.

I did learn something about the complicity of New England states in perpetuating slavery in the South, through t
Dec 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
I think what I liked a lot about Rachel May's book was that this story is probably not unique in the grand scheme of US History, but the fact that she's one of the very very few people telling this story makes it so unique. The huge amount of research and passion that went into this book is palatable and left me wanting more -- like to see the quilt for myself, and to look more closely at flea markets and car boot sales for hidden histories waiting to be unraveled.
Feb 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed reading this book. There were tidbits I was totally unaware of however she stitched the facts with her imaginary views of the way it could have been. She took the reader back in time to view the conversation of those “enslaved peoples” who communicated through the beautiful art of quilting. Wow! I’m exhausted as I toured those streets.
Sep 05, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: do-not-own
she calls harriet tubman a feminist killjoy which is just a lil bit 2 much for me
Aug 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Lots of interesting insights into the role slavery has played in the United States. Sometimes confusing jumping around.
Beryl Sortino
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was ok
"Creative nonfiction" a stretch. She assumed a lot even with extensive research.
Erica Gajewski Harris
Aug 14, 2018 rated it it was ok
This book had so much potential but the storytelling fell short. I was very disappointed. I loved the idea of this book, the execution lacking.
Natalie Shaffer
Oct 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I loved it!
May 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
The premise was promising. But I found it difficult to follow as she jumped around all over the place. I would have felt it would have been better with a more strict linear progression.
Feb 03, 2019 rated it liked it
A different perspective I had not considered before.
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Rachel May is the author of An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family & Slavery (Booklist starred review), The Experiments: A Legend in Pictures & Words, a collection of sewn images and fiction, The Benedictines: A Novel, and Quilting with a Modern Slant, a Library Journal & Best Book of 2014. Work has been recently published or is forthcoming in 1913: A Journal of Form ...more