from Life's Crazy Quilt
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Format: Hardcover, 208pp
Pub. Date: April 2003
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
American Lives Series
Reviewed by Walter Benefield for AALBC.com
Marvin Sprague says that her mother's favorite quilts to make were what she called ’Crazy Quilts.’ She defines these quilts as a collection of seemly random pieces of fabric, of various types and qualities combined to make a uniquely designed quilt. Marvin V. Arnett's memoir, aptly named ’Pieces from Life's Crazy Quilt,’ is the quilt-like collection of stories that compose a life.
’Pieces from Life's Crazy Quilt’ is a delightful read. A coming of age story told through the keen observations of Marvin Sprague, a black girl growing up in Detroit, Michigan during the 1930s and 40s. Through Marvin's eyes, we experience the life of a black family and community as they move through the Depression and World War II in a neighborhood on the Westside of Detroit.
The memoir features a host of characters with the Sprague family located in the center. Early in the memoir in a story entitled, ’The Jewel in the Crown.’ Sister Jewel passes away, the result of illness leaving an empty space in the Sprague family. William junior is a smart kid who likes to read science fiction magazines, the strong and silent type. Gracie Sprague is the picture of charm and beauty. A gifted seamstress, Gracie is a strong woman of faith who not only welds a needle and thread with skill, but first and foremost, Gracie, is one of those loveliest of all creatures, she is a mother. William Sprague senior is the hero. Throughout the memoir, William is fashioned as a sort of Renaissance man having worked as a Bartender, Chef, Carpenter and Chauffeur. His role as neighborhood elder is evident in many of the stories, ’Race Man,’ ’The Vote.’ And ’Not by Bread Alone’ demonstrates William's innovative way of solving the many problems faced by his family and his community.
The collection of stories makes their own crazy quilt as you can naturally assume the author intended. In truth, ’Pieces from Life's Crazy Quilt’ are stories within a story. The truth presented in ’Pieces from Life's Crazy Quilt’ is a common truth shared by all people. Are not we but the result of events and stories that have shaped us into the people we are today?
Although the stories are short in length, several deal with strong emotions and significant events. ’The Jewel in the Crown.’ recounts with strong emotions the short life of Jewel. In ’What's in A Name,’ the origin of Marvin's name is discovered, and ’Dick Tracy's Not Your Friend,’ is the story of an accidental shooting that affects the entire neighborhood. The author reveals the first time she felt the desire to tell stories as a writer in ’All Things Relative.’ In ’The Gathering Storm,’ a unique view from within the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 is seen. Lastly, providing lessons with comic relief are stories about the happenings within the ’Church of the True Believers.’
These stories, and several others, provide glimpses into the lives of black folks seen through the eyes of a youth. This first person perspective on people, places, and events is sometimes innocent and na've but always honest. Marvin's view into the lives of people living on the Westside of Detroit bears some similarities with Marguerite Johnson's view of life in Arkansas in ’I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ Excluding Maya Angelou's lyrical language in her extraordinary autobiography, ’I know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ ’Pieces from Life's Crazy Quilt’ places rough times beside humorous times in the crazy quilt that makes up Marvin Sprague's life. The result is an understanding of the lives of black folks that would make Maya Angelou nod in agreement.
’Pieces from Life's Crazy Quilt’ is based primarily on the author's life;
this close relation to the author gives the memoir warmth equal to a quality
quilt. This work serves as an excellent introduction to an era in the history of
black folks that many have not been exposed to firsthand.