Monday, December 7, 2009

Co-Review: The Persian Pickle Club

We're late for this November co-review, but better late than never, I say! It's not often you can find a light-hearted book about the Depression and the dustbowl midwestern suffering during the thirties. When I hear those two qualifiers I immediately think of The Grapes of Wrath and I wouldn't exactly call that book a laugh riot. The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas is sweet and mostly light-hearted despite being about Kansas farmwives dealing with poverty, death, and deception. Probably because our narrator, Queenie Bean, is a happy person despite her trials.

The Persian Pickles are women who gather to quilt and talk and read aloud to each other once a week. Queenie is by far the youngest member of the group, if you don't count the sour and embittered Agnes T. Ritter who's got a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas. The other members are women in their 50s and 60s and in various degrees of life circumstances, though no one is all that well-off in Harveyville, Kansas in the 1930s. The Pickles take care of each other and are bonded through their quilting, which they all love to do. When Rita is added to the group as a new member and Agnes' new sister-in-law, she shakes things up a bit. She's a city girl, reluctant to the farm life and anxious to make a name for herself as a reporter. Not that there's much to report about until one of the members of the club's husband is dug up in a field on her property. Rita is determined to get to the bottom of the murder and stir up trouble that everyone else wishes would stay hidden.

As usual, we don't hold back on spoilers. It's no fun trying to discuss a book in coded phrases, after all.

Jenny: The murder mystery part of the book was fun, but for me the friendship between the Pickles was the best part. I found myself wishing throughout the book that I had my own group of Persian Pickles. They were all such different women, but they had that bond of friendship through quilting and all kind of being in the same boat with the hardship of that time. There were plenty of quirks and foibles but they loved each other anyway.

It's interesting how hard Queenie was trying to make Rita become a true Pickle and that it took her some time to figure out that she was never going to make Rita love farming and quilting. It cracked me up at one point when Queenie said something about how farming was the most interesting work in the world and couldn't understand why anybody would do anything different. Wow.

Caren: Yes, and I laughed when she thought Rita was crazy for wasting her time reading. Unlike quilting, she couldn't understand how anyone would spend time on something that didn't lead to a finished product! But Dallas made Queenie such an endearing and sympathetic character that I could enjoy her even though her life experience was so different from my own. And I have to admit that she would probably judge my quilting abilities to be on the same level as Rita's!

I read this book some years ago, and reading it again knowing the ending helped me enjoy even more the bond that these women shared. It didn't seem naive for Queenie to trust them with the secret of her adopted baby when you know the deeper secret that already bound them together. And I was better able to acknowledge Dallas' craft in leading us to believe that the women wanted to avoid the subject of Ben Crook's death because they were uncomfortable with the topic of murder, and not because they were trying to protect the murderer. And all along, you never got the sense that Queenie as the first-person narrator was keeping anything from the reader. It was a clever narrative sleight-of-hand, but didn't feel manipulative or forced, so I thought it was well done.

Jenny: Yes, I never once caught on to the fact that they as a group were hiding Ben's true end. It just seemed like a bunch of ladies who thought it would hurt more than harm to dig up the truth. I just chalked it up to the culture of the time, like sending away an unmarried mother to save her the shame as being known for having a baby out of wedlock. Some things people just didn't talk about back then, murder being one of them. But no, it's because they were all in on it.

I know of a quilting group from my church that gets together once a week and works on projects. I've seen some of the finished quilts and they are mind-blowing. My grandmother is in a quilting guild and has had some of her work featured in a magazine. I always associate quilting with something from a different era, until you see what our mother-in-law can accomplish and realize it's as much an art form as painting or sculpture and probably will be timeless. I loved the Massies--the drifters who Queenie and her husband take in and provide a home for--because despite their poverty and superstitions, Zepha Massie was as much an artist as the Persian Pickles. I bet if anybody had referred to the Pickles as artists, they would have scoffed.

Caren: I agree with the artistic nature of textile arts such as quilting. I know some women for whom quilting is an art and a passion and I am in awe at the things they can create. And some of the most amazing quilters I know are from our generation, so I do think it's an art form that is alive and well. But I am just not patient enough to put in the effort to elevate my skills above the rudimentary level! It's fun to dabble with, but that's about all I can do!

I really liked the Massies too, and it broke my heart when Zepha left Queenie her prized quilt. It bothered me that they left so abruptly like that to who-knows-what kind of future when they really didn't need to go. They added another human element to the story that contributed to its sensitive nature. Like you said, overall it was the relationships that carried the story.

I've only read one other Sandra Dallas novel and I was disappointed in it so I haven't tried any more from her. It was another period piece with captivating characters and an interesting plot. But there were some things that bothered me about the main character's development that I not only disagreed with, but also seemed false and insincere. So it was nice to read The Persian Pickle Club again and remember why I tried her in the first place, and maybe it would be worth giving her another shot.

Jenny: You'll have to let us know if you find another great Dallas book. This one was fun and worth a quick read.

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