Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham 2010 ARC Penguin
IQ "Mama always said you should live a life the same way you piece a quilt. That you was the one in charge of where you put the pieces. You was the one to decide how your story turns out. Well, it seemed to me some of them pieces had a mind of their own." Ludelphia pg. 161-162
Leaving Gee's Bend tells the story of ten year old Ludelphia Bennett who lives in Gee's Bend, Alabama in 1932. Ludelphia's mother gets very sick so she decides to leave Gee's Bend for the first time and go to Camden to fetch the doctor (since Gee's Bend doesn't have one). Camden is over forty miles away and Ludelphia is traveling alone. This book tells the story of her journey and her quilt.
I liked reading Leaving Gee's Bend and only had a few issues with this novel. First of all, the book developed too slowly and I thought some details were tedious. I expected Ludelphia to leave Gee's Bend relatively soon, but no. It took her more chapters than I expected to make up her mind and then head out. Also, I wasn't much impressed with her journey. I didn't think it was that action packed, it seemed rather quick actually. It went like this: she eventually left Gee's Bend, some quick action, oh and now we are in Camden. My other problem with Leaving Gee's Bend is how sharecropping is discussed. That's just it, it's not really discussed. The topic and evils of sharecropping are tiptoed around, never fully explained (like how it was almost impossible to get out of debt often because the sharecroppers were tricked and it was mostly poor African Americans who were sharecroppers). I was especially annoyed with the ending, it details such a rare occurrence, I would have liked to see more realistic behavior from the people the sharecroppers worked for. *SPOILER* Highlight to read: I mean, c'mon. Mrs. Cobb raids Gee's Bend because she thought the girls were witches? More often than not it would be because the sharecroppers hadn't paid back their debt and even then, they most likely would have just been buried under even more debt, not necessarily have had all their possessions taken away. Granted she could have used the girls being witches to justify raiding Gee's Bend, but still. I didn't like how it was handled. **Spoiler ends* Also sharecropping is never explained, why do people have to sharecrop? Especially for younger readers, they might finish this novel wondering why Ludelphia and her family even had to work for Mrs. Cobb and sharecropping doesn't sound so bad, so then why did they have such a hard time paying their debts? An older reader would know why, but this novel is marketed to middle grade readers and they may or may not know. A smaller issue I had was over quilting. Gee's Bend is known for its rich quilting history (not that I know anything about that). I didn't receive that impression from the book, it is apparent that the ladies of Gee's Bend really like to quilt, but why do they like to quilt so much? What is the significance? I think the author could have gone into a bit more detail on that and maybe explain why it has such a rich history of quilting (I still have no idea why). I also thought it was a bit odd that the Great Depression is never really mentioned, no one talks about having to tigthen their belts even more because of hard economic times. Finally, we don't learn much about any other characters except Ludelphia and Mrs. Cobb who owned the land the sharecroppers worked on. I suppose this is because Ludelphia goes on her journey all alone, but I would have liked to learn more about the people of Gee's Bend (Etta Mae, Ludelphia's brother, Ruben, her father, etc.)
I did like one part of the ending that explored an event that I knew absolutely nothing about, that had nothing to do with sharecroppping, more to do with the Great Depression. I thought it was really interesting. I did enjoy reading about Gee's Bend. I think Irene Latham does an excellent job of describing what Gee's Bend was like in the 1930s and how it's different from Camden (a slightly more modernized town than Gee's Bend, for example, until Ludelphia went to Camden she had never had a Coke!). I could see the orange dust rising from the bare feet of Ludelphia and envision her worn eye patch (Ludelphia is blind in one eye). A curious but good part of the story was to the effect of Ludelphia being blind in one eye. I thought it added an intriguing element to the story, (although Ludelphia doesn't have as much trouble as I would have thought since she's only able to see out of one eye). Ludelphia is a well written character, she is brave, determined and has the naivete of youth, an aspect which is handled well in this book (unlike some others were the naive child is just annoying). Ludelphia is easy to relate to and I love how the author relates Ludelphia working on her quilt for her mother to Ludelphia's journey.
I would recommend Leaving Gee's Bend to middle school students because I think it can lead to conversations about sharecropping (and subsequently racism as well) and quilting (why is it so important?). Also, Ludelphia is a good role model for all readers. She willingly sacrifices for her family and she makes mistakes, but then quickly works to fix them. Older readers will be charmed by her and will learn at least two things (instead of the usual one!) from this relatively quick read. 5th grade and up
Disclosure: Received from Penguin. Thanks Stacey!