Middle Grade Monday: The Quilt, by Gary Paulsen
Title: The Quilt
Author: Gary Paulsen
Publishing info: Yearling, 2005. 96 pages.
A six-year-old boy goes to spend the summer with his grandmother Alida in a small town near the Canadian border. With the men all gone off to fight, the women are left to run the farms. There’s plenty for the boy to do—trying to help with the chores, getting to know the dog, and the horses, cows, pigs, and chickens.
But when his cousin Kristina goes into labor, he can’t do a thing. Instead, the house fills with women come to help and to wait, and to work on a quilt together. This is no common, everyday quilt, but one that contains all the stories of the boy’s family. The quilt tells the truth, past and future: of happiness, courage, and pain; of the greatest joy, and the greatest loss. And as they wait, the women share these memorable stories with the boy.
I read this book as a group read with my Great Middle Grade Reads group at Goodreads.com. Since I am a fan of Paulsen, and familiar with Paulsen's characters and voice, I enjoyed it, and was a bit taken aback to find that many of the other members of the group were very put off by the style. The common complaint was that the main character is referred to by the narrator only as "the boy," which many felt was distancing and off-putting. The style, the consensus was, didn't create any emotional connection to the character or the story.
Given the frequency of that reaction, I decided I needed to look at it more closely and consider both why that would be the case, and why it didn't bother me. That question led me to a point of wondering if this brief memoir (I notice the publisher's blurb doesn't indicate it is anything but a story, but the author's own forward makes it clear that this is part of his own story, perhaps as fictionalized as you might expect of memories from age 6) was really a children's book. Not only did people question whether a child reading the book would connect at all with the character, given the distancing narrative style, in some ways the subject matter seemed beyond children.
[Digression: a child can live through things that are, apparently, inappropriate for a child to read about. On reflection, this makes sense, in a saddening way.]
While others saw the story as drained of emotion and more (in the words of one member of the group) "like reading a pamphlet or a behavioral analysis," I had a very different reaction. I was fascinated by everything that wasn't said, and found myself reading it almost like poetry. That feel was broken in places, though, by intrusions that were harder to view from that distance. In other words, my problems came more from the points where the distance was broken, than from the sense of distancing itself.
Whether or not the book is right for kids, or even a good book, I thought it did one thing: it offered some insight into where the characters Paulsen likes to write spring from. This is the story of a little boy whose emotional support is distant, not unloving but undemonstrative. I can see his childhood shaping a strong, independent young man who has some trouble relating to people and has a strong preference for the outdoors.
Kind of like the author's most famous character, now that I think about it.
Given the reaction the book created, I'm not actually sure what to recommend. It's a very quick read, and the writing level is fairly low, for a book that in some ways could be read by fairly young children. The subject matter is not for small kids, though, and now I don't know how older ones might relate to the main character or the style.
Maybe I'll just recommend that if you loved Hatchet and the other Brian books, or The Voyage of the Frog or other Paulsen books, you (at any age over maybe 11) might be interested in this glimpse of what goes into creating characters like that.
FTC Disclosure: I checked The Quilt out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."