In “The Thread Collectors,” authors Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman combine their familial histories to create a fictional Civil War narrative that is about two women. Stella is a light-skinned woman who was bought to be the mistress of a plantation owner. She falls in love with one of the man’s slaves, William. William, an extremely talented musician, performs for his owner, Frye, and is desperate to escape his bondage to build a better life for himself and Stella. Lily, a Jewish woman in New York City, is married to musician Jacob. They both love music, and her father is a very successful music publisher. Lily is an ardent abolitionist, as well, and completely supports her husband when he enlists to fight for the Union.
We don’t just learn about the women, though. Through the omniscient narrative, we come to know Jacob and William as well, and we learn their stories. They meet after William escapes and runs to the Union encampment to join the Union forces. He meets Jacob almost immediately, and Jacob, upon seeing William’s flute, advises him to make sure his superior knows he’s a musician. That sage advice results in William’s survival, and the men become friends over their shared love of music.
William’s past is horrific, and in addition to the malevolent cruelty shown his mother, we learn about a young musician, Teddy, whom William has taken under his protection. Teddy’s past, also, is shockingly violent.
The authors bring the characters to life, and we come to admire the women and the men in the story. Through their eyes, we see how some people, even in the midst of a struggle to survive, can bestow light and generosity upon others. And yet we also see those, particularly members of the clergy who certainly should know better, who pander and change their beliefs when it suits their needs. Both Stella and Lily must face desperate situations in order to survive and help those they love. This novel is about our history, and it’s about the horrors and the beauty that mankind can inflict or bestow upon those who are considered “others.” Because even though Jacob is white, he is Jewish. And while he has had his freedom, he has often not been viewed as an equal. And to complicate matters, his only brother, who married a southerner, fought on the side of the Confederacy.
This would be an excellent choice for a book club because of its historical significance, the juxtaposition of race and religion in a war that was steeped in racial prejudice, and the limitations placed upon women in mid-19th century America. The novel, in short, is fitting grist for our 21st Century’s censorship mill. We see women who showed their strength and determination in spite of society’s (and men’s) determination to keep them helpless.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.