In the 1990s, Carol Nielson inherited a quilt. Or, to be more precise, half a quilt.
Her words on that occasion came by instinct: “Only a man could do that.” She was right; her husband’s great-great grandfather had cut the quilt down the middle rather than slight one of his daughters. Intrigued by the quilt, Nielson took advantage of the fact that each block contained the name of its creator and eventually wrote a book consisting of mini-biographies of each woman. At this point, gentle reader, you are perhaps tempted to adopt that glazed expression the Saints share when someone’s sacrament meeting talk on family history shifts into a reminiscence of their family history. There’s nothing more boring than someone else’s family history, is there?
But this book deserves more than glazed stares: not only are the women from some of the pioneer families that you know best (Woodruff, Young, Richardson; the 14th Ward included Temple Square and was home to many Church leaders), but their lives in 1857 give a snapshot of the Church, with converts from the four corners gathered to Utah–living The Principle. Polygamy is a major issue in this book; virtually every quilter shared her husband.
Which brings us to the major weakness of this work: Nielson is not a historian. A schoolteacher by trade, she approaches difficult interpretive issues such as polygamy in a rather naive way. In a brief explanation in the introduction, she states that the Church practiced polygamy simply in order to “raise up seed.” (Considering Joseph Smith’s polyandry, this is hardly a compelling argument.) Her rosy approach to polygamy is never more obvious than when she writes about sister wives who shared the burden of entertaining church and government leaders: “a formidable task that would make any woman wish for a sister wife.” (I’d probably be content to hire a caterer.) At one point, in what one can only hope was an unreflective moment, she refers to polygamy as the “higher law.”
Further, Nielson’s prose is often wooden, occasionally clunky, and sometimes even confusing. She frequently fumbles by attempting to find some metaphor for the woman’s life in her quilt square (“The . . . severed block, with the first and last names separated, lucklessly served as a portent of the future. Matilda’s tenure as wife of Isaac Rhoads was short.”)
Yet the book is still worthwhile for the glimmers that emerge of lives barely included in most historical records. They range from six-year-old Bulah Woodruff (whose father, Wilford Woodruff, would later write that she was “on the road to destruction” in a classic example of the ability of historical sources to hide more than they reveal and to tease the modern reader beyond that which she is able to bear) to Josephine Richards (a ‘countess’ who, after reading Les Miserables, sent a letter to Victor Hugo suggesting that the Gospel was the cure for the ills of which he wrote) to Deborah Turnbow (who buried ten of her thirteen children). There’s also interesting historical trivia here; most Saints are probably not aware, for example, that independent Relief Societies existed in the period after Nauvoo and before their formal church-wide reorganization in 1867. The lived reality of polygamy (the devil is in the details) is also a source for interesting factoids: “For subsequent wives, the title ‘Mrs.’ customarily preceded their own name,” while only the first wife would use her husband’s first name after the ‘Mrs.’ I did not know–until I read of the experience of quilter Mary S. Snow–that on one occasion (which Nielson calls “not an isolated incident”), a woman’s sister wife was none other than her own mother.
Nielson notes that two incidents crystalized her commitment to writing this book: she had a photo labelled with the man’s name and “and wife.” Since he was polygamous, she didn’t know which wife was in the photo. She contacted one of the man’s descendents for help. He didn’t know but he attempted to reassure her: “Women weren’t important back then, you know. It really doesn’t matter which wife it is.” Later, she was thrilled to find a good-sized biography of one of the quilter’s husbands. Imagine her dismay when she flipped through it and found this: “Unfortunately, there is not space to go into the history of the wives, nor their courage, patience, and other excellent qualities.”
It is that type of thinking which explains why, despite its flaws, I’m grateful that Nielson did “go into” the history of the women who created this quilt. The brief biographies, evocative photos of the women, and large reproductions of each quilt square–all on heavy paper, with the quilt photos in full color–make this book a fitting testament to those pioneer women who devoted their talents (and their precious fabric) to relieving the needs of others.