"In fascinating and exhaustive detail, May chronicles the generations of three intermarried families and the enslaved people they owned....Deeply researched and vividly written, May’s creative achievement casts new light on the often ignored contributions enslaved people made to American society."
- Booklist, starred review
"In An American Quilt, Rachel May is able to draw out the entire story of southern slavery and northern complicity from a remarkable discovery--a quilt top created in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1830s, and a notebook containing a cache of letters associated with it. From these materials, May weaves an extraordinary account of the families of the quilt makers--a Rhode Island woman descended from slave traders and the slave-holding husband who had brought her South to live. She also is able to invoke the lives of the enslaved population whose labor produced the cotton of which the quilt top was made--which fueled the rise of the New England textile industry. This is a terrific story, well researched and beautifully written, that both reveals the history associated with the quilt top and traces the author's efforts to unearth it."
- Joanne Pope Melish, author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and 'Race' in New England, 1789-1860
Following the trail left by an unfinished quilt, this illuminating saga examines slavery from the cotton fields of the South to the textile mills of New England—and the humanity behind it.
When we think of slavery, most of us think of the American South. We think of back-breaking fieldwork on plantations. We don’t think of slavery in the North, nor do we think of the grueling labor of urban and domestic slaves. Rachel May’s rich new book explores the far reach of slavery, from New England to the Caribbean, the role it played in the growth of mercantile America, and the bonds between the agrarian south and the industrial north in the antebellum era—all through the discovery of a remarkable quilt. While studying objects in a textile collection, May opened a veritable treasure-trove: a carefully folded, unfinished quilt made of 1830s-era fabrics, its backing containing fragile, aged papers with the dates 1798, 1808, and 1813, the words “shuger,” “rum,” “casks,” and “West Indies,” repeated over and over, along with “friendship,” “kindness,” “government,” and “incident.” The quilt top sent her on a journey to piece together the story of Minerva, Eliza, Jane, and Juba—the enslaved women behind the quilt—and their owner, Susan Crouch. May brilliantly stitches together the often-silenced legacy of slavery by revealing the lives of these urban enslaved women and their world. Beautifully written and richly imagined, An American Quilt is a luminous historical examination and an appreciation of a craft that provides such a tactile connection to the past.