How to Make an American Quilt

BOOK: How to Make an American Quilt

—Catherine Rambeau
Detroit Free Press

“Moving…The structure of the story is deceptively simple: Finn Bennett-Dodd, granddaughter of one of the quilters, comes to stay with her great-aunt Glady Joe and grandmother Hy while she considers her impending marriage. The stories she hears—and the things not said—become a compelling lesson on women’s changing roles and expectations.”

—Kate Seago                      

Los Angeles Daily News

“The tales are of love and betrayal, dreams and losses….In quilting, Whitney Otto finds an illuminating framework within which to view women’s lives….She excellently uses her central metaphor, taking us from discussion of quilting in wartime to the story of a woman’s son killed in Vietnam, from preserving quilts to preserving marriages, from the patterns of quilts to the patterns of women’s lives.”

—Gail Pool                               

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Engaging…Ms. Otto has written an affecting book about how an American quilt is made out of the tales of terror and delight pieced together by eight diverse, yet profoundly related, American women.”

—Anne Leaton               

Dallas Morning News

“Remarkable…Imaginative in concept and execution…This affecting novel demonstrates that a writer’s self-discipline can engender in a reader a significant emotional response.”                      

—Publishers Weekly



The author lovingly stitches together the lives of eight women, revealing the essence of their individual characters within a larger pattern of female culture. Otto introduces each woman’s story with a chapter of ‘Instructions’ on quilting…that gives the novel historical depth and resonance—as well as a quirky charm….Embedded in the art of quilt making and the stories of women who matured in decades that offered females fewer choices are truths both homely and sublime….
How to Make an American Quilt
introduces a wise author of exceptional promise.”

—Mary Jane Moffat          

San Jose Mercury News

“To read this novel is to watch the emergence of an intriguing chronicler of the American journey….Quilters usually have been women, long denied mainstream venues for expressing their visions, and quilting traditionally has been viewed as a craft, not an art. Yet this is precisely the injustice demolished by Whitney Otto’s bright fiction….Otto’s tale meticulously links [the quilters’] lives and their quilting, to provide an understanding of how the briefest moments of genuine human passion can engender far-reaching consequences.”

—Robert Johnson

Denver Post

“Truly remarkable…Rare is the book that weaves its words so well the reader loses all cognizance of time and surroundings. Such is the way of Otto’s first novel, a tapestry of feelings stitched together with such remarkable precision that anyone remotely enchanted by the phrasing of a good sentence will be obsessed to finish it without interruption.”

—Freda Yarbrough                                    

Morning Advocate
(Baton Rouge, LA)



Spare, beautifully crafted, this is an elegant, original novel that is made to last, a chronicle of the ways in which our lives border, overlay and are stitched together into a meaningful whole. Read this book, treasure it and pass it on.”

—Susan Larson          

The Times-Picayune

“Is this the Great American novel? It could very well be….Just as a quilt can be studied for its individual pieces as well as its whole, so to must this book be appreciated.
How to Make an American Quilt
is a collection of moments from the lives of all Americans, reflecting the personal triumphs and tragedies that inhabit all our lives.”

—Tom Donaghey       

South Bend Tribune

“A triumph…Otto has tremendous insight and compassion, understanding the rareness of a perfect marriage, the anger of thwarted lives, and the vagaries of love and motherhood. Her prose is as careful and precise as needlework, each word a perfect stitch, each contributing to this grand pattern of inheritance, hard-won wisdom, and hope. A novel that will capture many hearts.”                      


“Otto has written a small masterpiece….This is nothing less than a most stunning debut.”

—Gloria Horstman                   

Tribune News
(Whittier, CA)

This book contains an excerpt from the hardcover edition of
A Collection of Beauties at the Height of their Popularity
by Whitney Otto. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content.

A Ballantine Book

Published by The Random House Publishing Group

Copyright © 1991 by Whitney Otto

Reader’s Guide copyright © 2001 by Whitney Otto and The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Excerpt from
A Collection of Beauties at the Height of their Popularity
copyright © 2001 by Whitney Otto.

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material: NEW DIRECTIONS PUBLISHING CORP.: Excerpt from “In You: The Earth” from
The Captain’s Verses
by Pablo Neruda. Copyright © 1972 by Pablo Neruda and Donald D. Walsh. VIKING PENGUIN: Excerpt from “The Veteran” from
The Portable Dorothy Parker
by Dorothy Parker. Copyright © 1926, renewed 1954 by Dorothy Parker. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA, Inc. WARNER/CHAPPELL MUSIC, INC.: Excerpt from “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” by Cole Porter. Copyright © 1979 by Chappell & Co. All rights reserved. Used by Permission.

This edition published by arrangement with Villard Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

is a registered trademark and the Ballantine colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: 93-91082

ISBN 9780345388964

eBook ISBN 9780804181228

Cover design by Dreu Pennington-McNeil

Cover image © Jane A. Sassaman

First Ballantine Books Trade Paperback Edition: May 1994



[On photography:] “One theme with endless variations, like life itself.”


When I was young and bold and strong,

Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!

My plume on high, my flag unfurled,

I rode away to right the world.

“Come out, you dogs, and fight!” said I,

And wept there was but once to die.

But I am old; and good and bad

Are woven in a crazy plaid.



t first, I thought I would study art. Art history, to be exact. Then I thought, No, what about physical anthropology?—a point in my life thereafter referred to as My Jane Goodall Period. I tried to imagine my mother, Sarah Bennett-Dodd (called Sally by everyone with the exception of her mother), camping with me in the African bush, drinking strong coffee from our battered tin cups, much in the way that Jane did with Mrs. Goodall. I saw us laid up with matching cases of malaria; in mother/daughter safari shorts; our hands weathering in exactly the same fashion.

Then, of course, I remembered that I was talking about
mother, Sally, who is most comfortable with modernity and refuses to live in a house that anyone has lived in before, exposing me to a life of tract housing that was curious and awful.

Literature was my next love. Until I became loosely acquainted with critical theory, which struck me as a kind of intellectualism for its own sake. It always seems that one has to choose literature or critical theory, that one cannot love both. All of this finally pushed me willingly (I later realized) into history.

I began with the discipline of the time line—a holdover from elementary school—setting all the dates in order, allowing me to fix time and place. History needs a specific context, if nothing else. My time lines gradually grew more and more ornate, with pasted-on photographs and drawings that I carefully cut from cheap history books possessing great illustrations but terrible, unchallenging text. I was taken with the
of history before I arrived at the
“meat” of the matter. But the construction of the time line is both horizontal and vertical, both distance and depth. Which, finally, makes it rather unwieldy on paper. What I am saying is that it needed other dimensions, that history is not a matter of dates, and only disreputable or unimaginative teachers take the “impartial” date approach, thereby killing all interest in the subject at a very early age for many students.

(I knew, in a perfect world, I would not be forced to choose a single course of study, that I would have time for all these interests. I could gather up all my desires and count them out like valentines.)

The Victorians caught my eye almost instantly with their strange and sometimes ugly ideas about architecture and dress and social conventions. Some of it was pure whimsy, like a diorama in which ninety-two squirrels were stuffed and mounted, enacting a basement beer-and-poker party, complete with cigars and green visors pulled low over their bright eyes; or a house that displayed a painting of cherubs, clad in strips of white linen, flying above the clouds with an identical painting hidden, right next to it, under a curtain in which the same cherubs—babies though they were—are completely nude. Or a privileged Texas belle’s curio cabinet that contained a human skull and blackened hand. Or still another young woman (wealthy daughter of a prominent man) who insisted on gliding through the family mansion with a handful of live kittens clinging to the train of her dress.

I enrolled in graduate school. Then I lost interest. I cared and then I didn’t care. I wanted to know as much about the small, odd details that I discovered here and there when looking into the past as I did about Lenin’s secret train or England’s Victorian imperialism or a flawless neo-Marxist critique of capitalism.

There were things that struck me as funny, like the name Bushrod Washington, which belonged to George’s nephew, or the man who painted Mary Freake and her baby, known only as the
Freake Limner. And I like that sort of historical gossip; I mean, is it true that Catherine the Great died trying to copulate with a horse? And if not, what a strange thing to say about someone. Did Thomas Jefferson have a lengthy, fruitful affair with his slave Sally Hemings? What does that say about the man who was the architect of the great democratic dream? What does it say about us? Did we inherit the dream or the illicit, unsettling racial relationship?

This sort of thing is not considered scholarly or academic or of consequence, these small footnotes. And perhaps rightly so. Of course, I loved the important, rigorous historical inquiry as well. What I think I wanted was both things, the silly and the sublime; which adds up to a whole picture, a grudgingly true past. And out of that past truth a present reality.

You could say I was having trouble linking the two.

I wished for history to be vital, alive with the occasional quirk of human nature (a little “seriojovial”); I imagined someone saying to me,
Finn, what ever gave you the idea that history was any sort of living thing? Really. Isn’t that expectation just the least bit contradictory?

Then Sam asked me to marry him.

It seemed to me a good idea.

Yet it somehow led me back to my educational concern, which was how to mesh halves into a whole, only in this case it was how to make a successful link of unmarried to married, man to woman, the merging of the roads before us. When Heathcliff ran away from Wuthering Heights, he left Cathy wild and sad, howling on the moors,
I am Heathcliff
, as if their love were so powerful, their souls so seamlessly mated, that no division existed for them, save the corporeal (though I tend to believe they got “together” at least once), which is of little consequence in the presence of the spirit.

All of which leaves me wondering, astonished, and a little put off. How does one accomplish such a fusion of selves? And, if the affection is that strong, how does one
it, leaving a little room for
the person you once were? The balance of marriage, the delicate, gentle shifting of the polished scales.

Let me say that I like Sam tremendously. I love him truly.

The other good idea was spending the summer with my grandmother Hy Dodd and her sister Glady Joe Cleary. Their relationship with me is different from that with the other grandchildren; we share secrets. And I probably talk to them a little more than my cousins or their own children do. I think they have a lot to say and I am more than willing to hear it. All of it. Whatever strikes them as important.

To me, they are important.

So my days are now spent watching the quilters come and go, lazily eavesdropping on the hum of their conversation and drifting off into dreams on my great-aunt’s generous porch; thinking about my Sam, my sweetheart. Or lying on my back, in the shade, in Aunt Glady’s extravagant garden, removing the ice cubes from my tea, running them across my face, neck, and chest in an effort to cool down from the heat.

I could wander over to the Grasse swimming pool, but it is always so crowded. Sophia Richards says you never know who you’ll meet there—as if I want to meet anyone. As if I am not already staying in a house that has quite a bit of “foot traffic.”

The quilters have offered to make a bridal quilt in honor of my marriage, but I tell them to
Please continue with what you are doing as if I never arrived to stay for the summer
. Sometimes I say,
I can’t think about that now
(as if anyone can think clearly in this peppery heat). I can see this puzzles them, makes them wonder what sort of girl it is who “cannot think about” her own wedding.

This amuses me as well, since, at age twenty-six, I have lost track of the sort of girl that I am. I used to be a young scholar; I am now an engaged woman. Not that you cannot be both—even I understand that—yet I cannot fathom who I think I am
at this time
My aunt Glady told me recently that this strikes her as “healthy and sensible”—to take a minute or so for yourself, to take a little time to think.

The true source of my interest during this visit, this impasse in my own life, is Anna Neale, another one of the quilters and my aunt’s oldest friend. Anna has promised me a long talk one day, she says, when she is not so busy, when there is nothing else to do. But her time always seems occupied. She’s remarkably beautiful, Anna Neale is. Even at seventy-three. She can turn heads.

We are all drawn to beauty. I think it is a beacon for us; makes us want to listen.

Well, I am ready to listen.

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