Tuesday, April 4, 2017

To the Stars Through Difficulties by Romalyn Tilghman.

When She Writes Press asked if I would be interested in reviewing To The Stars Through Difficulties by Romalyn Tilghman I recalled seeing the book on NetGalley and thinking it was interesting, so I agreed.

When I started reading the novel I was delighted to discover it was not only about the building of Carnegie libraries in Kansas but also about an art quilter--and it includes a genealogical mystery.

My blog subtitle is "Books. Quilts. What I Love." And 'what I love' includes genealogy. It's as if the book had been written just for me!
The empowerment of women to impact their community, the use of art for healing, and a belief in the power of books are the themes behind the stories of three women.

A tornado has destroyed the Kansas town of Prairie Hill. Gayle has lost everything and she and her husband are weighing rebuilding or relocation. The Prairie Hill women mourn their losses, including antique heirloom quilts.

"If only someone could stitch together the few remaining pieces of my tattered life into something whole and new and beautiful." - Gayle

Bibliophile Angelina is pushing forty and trying to finally finish her dissertation on the Carnegie libraries, particularly the one her grandmother helped to build in New Hope, Kansas--population 2,975. She leaves her disapproving mother and Philadelphia behind, gambling on the dissertation to bring a career and independence.

Traci is a twenty-six-year-old self-taught artist from the streets of New York City. An unwanted baby raised by a dysfunctional foster family, she feels bitter and unloved. She was hired, under false credentials, to be the artist in residence for the New Hope art center located in the old Carnegie library. Her art quilts embellished with 'trash' had garnered her an NYC gallery show.

"Great. I've swapped bed bugs for tornadoes." --Traci

Angelina arrives in New Hope for material and to find her grandmother's legendary journal which holds important documentation on how women built the library she loved to visit as a girl. Along the way, Angelina discovers more than history; she finds family, acceptance, love, and a career.

Traci is dismayed by the plebeian work the local quilters turn out.

"I see these women are all great seamstresses but their choices of fabric are dismal: American flags, spiders, and cats. It's amazing how they can put so much time and energy into such crap."
She encourages the No Guilt Quilters to use quilting for self-expression, expanding their techniques to include surface design and the repurposing of textiles and trash for embellishment. She is able to prod them past local gossip and partisan divides (there is antagonism between Prairie Hill and New Hope) so that they become a force for community change.

"You've got to throw all your pain into your creativity. Believe me, it's the best therapy."

Traci has a rough start with the teenagers sent to the art center as punishment after being kicked out of school band. They resent their conservative and parochial community. "We're runners," one explains. "Ran away from home, and if we run away from the foster family, we'll end up in juvvy." Their first project does not go over with the locals, but the teens are empowered and find their voices in art.

Along the way, readers learn about robber baron Andrew Carnegie's charitable donations and orphan trains.

Having lived in Philadelphia, with a husband who worked in New York City, and having afterward having lived in several small towns, I appreciated the East Coast ladies' adjustments. The small town's inability to agree on a paint color for the library recalled our small town church that got pretty riled up over deciding what color to paint the sanctuary. I also enjoyed Traci remarking, "where I come from, there are never so many white women in one place." I had an adjustment coming from a diverse neighborhood to a county with one family of color out of 40,000 people.

But don't think there is an East Coast bias to the book. In the end, Traci and Angelina discover "there's no place like home," and that home is in New Hope, Kansas.

I don't need a happy, tied up ending to a book, but for readers who do, this one offers a wish-fulfillment ending for all. Online questions for book clubs are available at http://www.romalyn.com/resources

I received a free ebook from She Writes Press through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

I asked the author to talk about several topics.

Nancy: I wondered what Romalyn's experience with the NEA brought to her understanding of how the arts is important to community building. Also, with the current administration's desire to ax the NEA from Federal support, what will be lost?

Romalyn: I was lucky to start my career in Kansas, thanks to an NEA grant. I was hired to work with communities interested in creating cultural opportunities. I met the most dedicated, creative, smart, and hard-working volunteers who were determined to provide arts classes and performances and exhibits. Many of them, with grit and gumption, managed to find the resources to create an arts center, even in one-stoplight-towns. And, yes, the entire community was proud. I thought each town had its own self-esteem, and sometimes that self-esteem had been threatened by the consolidation of schools or the new highway bypassing town. Like individuals do, those towns could regain their self-esteem through focus and new goals.

One summer a storyteller toured to 90 towns, all with populations of under 3,000. We also toured an exhibit of Kansas quilts that would rival those displayed in the world’s most prestigious museums. We had quilts from the early 19th century and those finished days before yesterday.

Many people think the NEA funds only NPR and the Metropolitan Opera, but, in fact, it provides seed money for artistic endeavors across the country, in rural mining and farming communities and in inner city schools; each taxpayer contributing 47 cents, less than the price of a postage stamp.

It’s through the arts that we tell our stories, and stories deserve to be told no matter from whence they come. It’s through the arts that we develop our creativity, and the world can certainly use creative thinkers, in and out of artistic professions. Artists will work, with or without NEA support, but they will have less time to create and there will be less incentive to spread the arts to places without wealthy patrons. We will lose stories and we will lose creativity, beyond the significant arts contribution to the GNP.

Nancy: I would like to know what quilter/s  inspired Traci and her art. It was exciting to read about surface design and embellishment in a novel.

Romalyn: Traci is not based on one person, but is more a composite of the many textile artists I know. I had fun in imagining her as a self-taught artist.

Traci was found in a trashcan on Times Square shortly after her birth, adopted into a troubled family, and pretty much raised herself. She is both savvy and scrappy. Her education came through the New York Public Library and free days at museums, where she saw the works of great artists and the power of self-expression. Using found objects from the streets, she begins to make quilts, like the collages she sees in galleries. She might have seen a show of Amish or African-American quilts at the Folk Art Museum, giving her the courage to use rich and deep colors. Or the prints of Faith Ringgold at the Guggenheim.

It’s not until she gets to Kansas that she begins to hone her techniques, sees the virtue in perfect seams and tight knots. Quickly, she figures out she’s learning as much as she’s teaching, but takes great delight in seeing the Kansas women stretch their creative muscles, by making heart stamps out of apples or polka dots with the tips of erasers.

To The Stars Through Difficulties
Romalyn Tighman
She Writes Press
Publication Date April 4, 2017
$16.95 paperback

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