"STAND THE STORM" BY BREENA CLARKE
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"Sewing Annie Coats rises to retrieve her 'talking' quilt from underneath the floorboards. She folds the quilt precisely and sets it on the sill of the window so that the Log Cabin pattern with black in the middle faces out back." Daniel Joshua, a compassionate bondperson, cautiously approaches Ridley & Ridley Fine Tailoring. Washington's Bridge and High streets are buzzing with slave trading and abolitionist activity.
Quilts are one of the most prized possessions owned by even the poorest of families. Its mosaic creation begins with a spool of thread, a pattern, precise measurements, a fine needle and sharp shears. Gabriel Coats, like his grandmother Knitting Annie and his mother Sewing Annie, is an expert tailor. His needle produces perfect stitching in decorative handkerchiefs, petticoats, quilts and fine garments.
Breena Clarke is author of the the international bestseller, "River, Cross My Heart." Her latest novel, "Stand the Storm," spins an engaging, 1850s tale of a strong bond, despite slavery, between mother and son.
Clarke captures the heartache of separation, both fleeting and endless. Her prose is intelligent, direct and a voice of the times. Sewing Annie recalls her past with both longing and regret through the author's clever literary flashbacks found within this rich, historical fiction.
But in the meantime, Daniel has eyes for Sewing Annie, and she’s not having any of it. She saves her affections for her only son, Gabriel. Ellen Coates, Gabriel’s sister, eventually joins them and now their circle is complete until a baby named Delia and a runaway renamed Mary appear. What is it about Mary’s presence that bothers Gabriel? Why is he indifferent toward baby Delia?
"Stand the Storm" depicts the brutality of slavery and slave trading with clarity. The runaway slave, wearing a raised and ugly scar as a brand, is a product of this rueful bargain.
The auction house that offered Mary and others for sale was located across the Potomac from Georgetown in Alexandria -- in the state of Virginia. Higgins completed his costume of a gentleman plantation owner by hiring a carriage to take him across the river to Whittier & Sons. That which he had eaten to sustain the enterprise welled up in his throat on approaching the auction house. Odors off the fetid riverbank, whiskey smells, animal effluvium and the fear and neglect of wretched humans being offered for sale swirled around Higgins's nostrils as he dismounted the carriage in front of the auction barn.
Gabriel lends his hands to sewing consignments to purchase freedom for his family. But convincing Jonathan Ridley, his greedy master, to release his grip is not going to be easy. Will payment be enough? Ridley is emotionless and cruel. The practice of slavery at the Ridley Plantation is subservient, including backbreaking fieldwork, whippings, torture and routine rapings.
Slaves flee Washington when the Union army advances. Food and men are scarce. Cooks, laborers, prostitutes, animal keepers, laundresses, boot blacks, horses and cobblers move off south with the soldiers.
Gabriel, like many freed blacks, is caught between the slaveholders in Maryland and the slaveholders in Virginia. Black men enthusiastically meet and then enlist for freedom’s sake. They are called "The Men of the First United States Colored Troops." What is the role of the black man in this agonizing war?
Clarke enlists the help of superstitious and unforgettable characters to show us readers the many faces of bondage. She depicts an unfathomable reality and achieves believability, empathy and hope. What will become of Gabriel, Sewing Annie, Ellen, Delia, Mary and innocent children?
The story behind the "Freedom" quilts is one of awe, industry and culture. The need to communicate is powerful and a necessity for the runaway slave and the abolitionist. Historically, colorful quilts portray an invaluable code within its patterns and colors ... and hopeless victims are led to a safe haven.
In Clarke's provocative prose, churches also play a unique role in the abolition of slavery. Today, Holy Trinity Catholic Church and Mount Zion United Methodist Church remain in historic Georgetown in Washington, D.C. The district includes a historically large African-American population where slave labor once thrived. Her story also depicts the Potomac River located in Georgetown, a neighborhood located in northwest Washington, D.C.
Experience history, a fresh look at slavery and the Coats family's unwavering desire for freedom. Marvel at the strength of Gabriel Coats - the anchor in an impending storm.
FREEDOM IN FICTION
Stand the Storm
Author: Breena Clarke
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Publication Date: July 2008
Listen to an excerpt from Stand the Storm
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"The Week's Most Talked About Book" is a weekly book review and literary criticism column that publishes every Friday. Selected titles are based on popularity, public opinion, research and observation. Questions, comments and suggestions should be sent to book lover and columnist Karla Mass at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is a content producer for McClatchy Interactive.