Filling in the Blankets : HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT <i> By Whitney Otto (Villard Books: $18; 160 pp.)</i>

<i> Freeman's latest novel, "Set for Life," will be published this fall by W.W. Norton. </i>

“How to Make an American Quilt” is a title to make one pause. It sounds quirky, and doesn’t suggest a novel so much as an instructional manual.

Whitney Otto’s first book, however, is unquestionably a work of fiction--an intelligent, brief and highly original novel. Think of it as a collection of seven very well-crafted short stories, interspersed with an equal number of chapters labeled “Instructions” that offer up fascinating information on the history and techniques of quilting, and include short philosophical excursions into subjects as diverse as history and marriage, politics and mythology, horticulture and slavery. All this is fitted together to produce a complexly patterned work, one slightly random in feeling, like a classic “crazy” quilt.

Within literary circles, a book like this sometimes is referred to as a “novel-in-stories,” meaning liberties are taken with structure, as well as with time and voice. It sounds like a new phenomenon, but it’s not. “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s composite portrait of small-town American life, is an earlier example of this technique. Otto does something quite similar, only it isn’t a town she portrays but a community of women, all of whom belong to the same quilting circle in the small town of Grasse, near Bakersfield.


The women of the Grasse Quilting Circle each are given their own chapters in the book. We do not simply see small parts of their lives but also, in most cases, rather large slices. One of the truly remarkable things about this novel is how powerfully, and succinctly, an entire life can be portrayed in just a few pages.

With the exception of Marianna, Anna Neale’s daughter, the women all are older. Their lives have intersected for many years. Collectively their stories overlap, creating an intricate webbing of affection, and also injury. There have been betrayals, adulteries and jealousies within this group, just as there have been abiding friendships, so important in times of trouble. Each woman has had her own share of difficulty in love and marriage. As someone remarks: “Marriage has just as good a chance of being wonderful as it does of missing the mark. There is a strong possibility that it will be both.”

This remark belongs to 26-year-old Finn Bennett-Dodd, the subtle “voice” behind much of the novel. Finn’s grandmother, Hy Dodd, and her sister, Glady Joe Cleary, are two of the oldest members of the quilting circle, women who “had always been languishing somewhere in their senior years, as if they had somehow executed the leap from girlhood to middle age to senior citizen, lacking any sort of transitional areas in between.”

Once a student of history, Finn has dropped out of graduate school, having discovered she’s much more interested in the “inconsequential” footnotes to history (“Did Thomas Jefferson have a lengthy, fruitful affair with his slave Sally Hemings?”) than neo-Marxist critiques of capitalism. Though Finn’s days are now spent in her grandmother’s house “watching the quilters come and go,” she is not idle; she is busy listening, in order to become the pale philosophical presence behind so much of the novel, the “witness” who will stitch together the women’s stories.

Otto has a gift for combining disparate elements in a serendipitous fashion, particularly in the “quilting” chapters. The reader, like the viewer of Cezanne’s still lifes, is expected to notice the color cast by one thing onto another. Sometimes the connections are more apparent than others.

A chapter entitled “Instructions No. 6,” for instance, begins with the retelling of African myths having to do with women, slavery and spirituality. It goes on to discuss “sewing slaves” in the antebellum South, women who once could be bought for $1,800.

This leads into the story of Anna Neale, the child of a black mother and a white father, who becomes the “undisputed leader” and founder of the Grasse Quilting Circle. Says Anna, “I learned to speak with needle and thread long before society finally ‘gave’ me a voice.”

The quilt can be an expression of deeply personal sentiments. As a child in the 1930s, Anna loved a quilt made by her great-great-grandmother, called “The Life Before.” The quilt is composed of blocks depicting African animals and scenes. Anna is set to inherit the quilt, but “The Life Before” is sold by Anna’s Aunt Pauline to her white employer for much-needed money. It’s a terrible mistake. Anna’s birthright and heritage have been bartered. The quilt is all she really wants, and finding herself pregnant and frightened, she steals “The Life Before” one night and runs away to begin a life of her own.

Anna ends up being employed as a domestic for the Ruebens family, who take in “wayward” girls. Their daughters, Glady Joe and Hy, are just Anna’s age--17. An unlikely friendship develops between Anna and Glady Joe, the less glamorous of the sisters. Anna introduces Glady Joe to quilting, and in return Glady Joe brings to Anna an awareness of literature, reading aloud from “Wuthering Heights,” which leads in time to Anna’s discovery of black writers.

Each woman in this novel has a life as distinctive and richly portrayed as Anna Neale’s, and their friendships run deep, like Anna’s and Glady Joe’s. It’s possible to see these stories as representative of a spectrum of women’s experience in the 20th Century. Some of the women, like Em Reed and Glady Joe, will be tormented by their husbands’ infidelities. Others, like Constance Saunders, will gravitate toward a single life, only to be surprised by the appearance of a man with whom deep and abiding love is possible. In some cases, a pampered dog will substitute for a child. In others, a child will become the raison d'etre.

And some women, like Sophia Darling, Corrina Amurri and Hy Dodd, will feel the bitter disappointment of giving too much of themselves away to the men they have loved. Anna will never marry, though she will long for the feeling of kinship a larger family might have provided.

These are beautiful individual stories, stitched into a profoundly moving whole. There is a sense of history here, a feeling for quilting that elevates this somewhat arcane, feminine activity to a level of Zen-like wonder. The quilt has been made into a metaphor, capable of suggesting many things. Above all, it stands for the love that must accompany any activity of consequence:

“As the twentieth century draws to a close,” Otto writes, “heads shake at the high divorce rate, the brutalization of the love affair, left in neglect or disarray. Leave that old lover. Take the A train. But in the dark of your room you may be moved to admit to yourself that you only thought you fell out of love . . . when in reality you may not have felt love at all, but something entirely different. Once you love, you cannot take it back, cannot undo it. . . .”