Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Thread Collectors interweaves Black and Jewish perspectives on the U.S. Civil War

A collaboration between two longtime friends has resulted in a unique historical novel about two couples – one Black and one Jewish – whose stories come together during the chaos and destruction of the U.S. Civil War.

The feminine cover is somewhat misleading, since The Thread Collectors gives equal time to the male perspective. In 1863, Private Jacob Kling, a Jewish cornet player in the Union army stationed at Camp Parapet in Jefferson, Louisiana, is ordered to help with the intake of Black recruits for the Louisiana Native Guards. It’s in this role that he first meets William, a gifted flutist who took considerable risks fleeing enslavement to join the Union forces. Their fellow soldiers disparage interracial mingling, but the two form a bond over their passion for music.

Both men have left behind the women they love for the cause. Jacob’s wife, the former Lily Kahn, is the daughter of a German Jewish immigrant who made his fortune selling sheet music. From her Fifth Avenue apartment, Lily writes tender letters to Jacob expressing her pride in his service and recounting her work supporting abolition and the war effort. William’s beloved is Stella, a mixed-race free woman forced to become the mistress of a white Confederate officer – the same man who bought William and brought him to Louisiana from his home on Georgia’s Sapelo Island as a child.

With four viewpoints and many flashbacks to the recent past, the novel is a detailed collage of Civil War experiences, ranging from the domestic arena to battlefield courage and carnage. All are stitched together tightly into a coherent narrative, although since Lily’s viewpoint is shown through letters initially, it feels a touch unbalanced. A young woman of conviction, Lily finds a strong role model in suffragist Ernestine Rose, among others, though her stated admiration for Isabella of Castile feels odd, given her religion.

In addition to portraying the characters’ survival skills relative to gender and race, the novel exposes the racial prejudice they endure, some of which may be surprising – like General Grant’s anti-Semitic views and the slurs against Jews that pervade the army camps, as well as the Union army’s cruelly unequal treatment of the Black soldiers in its ranks.

Without losing sight of the big picture, the story emphasizes the varied means of communication that draw the characters together. These include Jacob and William’s shared love of music; Lily’s mailing of letters and new tunes, which boosts morale at the camp; Jacob saying Kaddish (the Jewish mourner’s prayer) for the souls of Black men; and, most of all, Stella’s dexterity in stitching maps with colored threads, unpicking stitches from other fabrics to create visual guides pointing the way to freedom.

Civil War-era novels are common, but this isn’t a story that’s been told before. In all, this book speaks to the courage to trust and how the ties of friendship can make people stronger.

The Thread Collectors by Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman was published last August by Graydon House (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

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