by Judith Miller
The Quilted Grapevine
by Nancy Lou Patterson, a reader of The Lewis Legacy
The Brucedale Press, Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada. $14.95
Reviewer Judith Miller, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at Renison College, University of Waterloo. She teaches Canadian Literature and Creative Writing as well as courses on the genres of literature. She publishes poetry, reviews and critical essays.
A blue jay, after much splashing in the birdbath, is drying her wings in the apple tree. The whirr of a hummingbird startles me. Bumblebees are tumbling in the flowering of the columbine. And I have been reading The Quilted Grapevine by Nancy Lou Patterson. The sheer abundance of things never ceases to amaze me.
Patterson’s book is charming and gentle and wise. It is also brave, with layers of topics difficult to write about: growing-up, cross-cultural confusions, dowsing, story-telling, academic research… Through it all runs the leitmotif of a small key, tied with a blue ribbon. The cover reflects the experience of the book, in its loveliness of suggestion, of complexity. This is a beautifully made book.
Elizabeth (Bizabet), whose company I have enjoyed in Patterson’s other books, is moving from childhood into adulthood, full of grief, confusion, joy, anticipation. Perhaps this aspect of the book catches my attention because I do not know very many novels which look at this passage in the lives of girls and their mothers. As Elizabeth tells her story of seeking to understand a particularly wonderful quilt, the reader is aware that her mother is protecting/guiding her from a respectful distance, sharing her adventures with sympathy and occasional clumsiness. Which Elizabeth notices, is irritated by — and forgives. Each learns from the other.
Dowsing — or intuitive research — is sometimes a controversial topic. Anyone who has experienced it is moved by the unexpectedness of it — and by its reliability. Elizabeth is no exception. Offered the opportunity to try it, she is astonished by this gift, by the way a forked stick moves in her hand, drawing her toward things lost in the earth. Most telling, she is surprised by the way she can open her mind, to allow possibility:
“Gradually, I began to feel calmer, to hold my hand more steadily, to
concentrate, as I needed to do, on not concentrating. Even as the wind
whipped my hair across my cheeks, and the first fat drops of rain splashed
on the back of the hand that held the dangling key, I kept walking on”
Determined to find out who made the beautiful and puzzling Grapevine Quilt, Elizabeth uses her new found skills, relying on her mother’s support, on the gift of her mother’s “key.” The Grapevine quilt has a break in the pattern: a strange motif of maple leaves, a pattern Elizabeth notices on a beaded band which her young, beloved, brother finds. The beaded band had been made by native women of the Bruce peninsula, and Elizabeth learns that it is a traditional pattern.
Just as dowsing finds the break in the pattern, the place where something significant is hidden, so Elizabeth’s research begins from the break in the quilt pattern. She discovers that answers can lie in silences, in stories not told. She sees that learning happens in an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation. She comes to understand that the researcher, with a burning determination to find out, gives voice to things which cannot speak for themselves. (Is it any wonder that I would enjoy this book?)
Through Elizabeth’s story runs the magic of the Bruce Peninsula: its places, its peoples, its cultures. The hovering mysteries of the Bruce link people across cultures and bring hidden gifts to the surface. Stories are recorded in the rock, in libraries, in handwork, and in people’s memories. Each story is a gift.
And the key. Which Elizabeth finds, claims, loses, and re-claims, having made it her own. As it shifts back and forth between mother and daughter, learning is exchanged — and old wisdom. Professor Tessa passes on her research skills to her daughter, but even more important, she passes on a habit of mind: openness, compassion, imagination — and curiosity. I delight in watching the intellectual and intuitive links between this woman and her daughter. Yes, I think, as I read. That is how it was for me. That is how mother and daughter can — and often do — connect. It takes intelligence and humour on both sides, a light touch. Helped by a small key with a blue ribbon on it. (In my case, it was a lovely wooden jewel box.)
I have enjoyed the story of this book and its ways of resonating into image and metaphor. This is a book for quilters, for academics, for mothers and daughters, for supportive fathers — and for mischievous, stalwart brothers. It is, itself, a gift.