Free Fridays: The Keeping Quilt

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The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco depicts the history of an immigrant family as they acclimate to America over many generations while preserving their heritage through a quilt.  The story is based on Polacco’s own heritage, and is told from her perspective.  The story opens when her Great-Gramma Anna, having just come to New York from Russia with her parents, begins her new life with only a dress and a babushka to remind her of home.  Once she outgrows them, her mother uses pieces from the dress and babushka, combined with articles of clothing from family members back in Russia, to create a quilt to remind them of home.  We see how the quilt follows Anna throughout her life, from carrying on their Jewish heritage to getting engaged and then married, and then to welcoming her daughter, Patricia’s grandmother, Carle.  The story continues to see how the quilt plays a role in Carle’s life, and then her daughter, Patricia’s mother, Mary Ellen’s.  The quilt is always there, in times of hardship and joy, as Anna dies and Patricia is born. Patricia describes how the quilt has been used in her life, and the story ends with her holding her own daughter in it.

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The Keeping Quilt emphasizes the importance of maintaining one’s heritage while still moving forward in life.  We see traditions carried on but also how times and customs change.  There are four weddings shown in this book, one for each girl who has owned the quilt.  Each one is married beneath it as a huppa, and each incorporates a gold coin, bread and salt into the ceremony.  But we also see how the generations slowly change.  In Anna’s wedding, the men and women celebrate separately, but then at Carle’s wedding they celebrate together but do not dance with each other.  At Mary Ellen’s wedding there are both Jews and non-Jews present, and Mary Ellen wears a suit instead of a dress.  Patricia’s wedding shows men and women dancing together, and she incorporates a sprinkle of wine for laughter.  The changes are gradual, but by the end we see many key differences between Anna and Patricia’s weddings.  Teaching this book can be used to show children not only a different culture than they may be used to, but also how heritages may be maintained while still moving forward.

This book includes beautiful pencil illustrations by Polacco herself, shown in shades of gray with the only color being the quilt.  The drawings are incredibly realistic, with facial expressions depicting lifelike emotions to match the scene.  We see an evolution of the facial structure as the family intermixes with the American culture. As the book progresses we can clearly see that time is passing based on the changing fashions, settings and furniture and also through the additions of technologies such as cars.  But, in almost every picture there is some depiction of the Jewish faith, whether it’s a Yamaka, a Rabi, or a Torah, showing the value they still place in their heritage.

The 25th anniversary edition includes an additional fifteen pages of the story that picks up where the original book ended and tells how the quilt has continued to live on.  A new chapter in the family begins when the quilt becomes so worn out that Patricia’s children surprise her with a new, identical quilt.  Patricia makes the hard decision to donate the original quilt to a museum, but we see how the new quilt carries on the story.  We continue to see the changing of cultures in this addition, with Patricia’s daughter marrying another woman, but still under the huppa of the quilt.  This new addition shows that the legacy of the quilt lives on.

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This book would be great with a wide range of ages, and can spark a discussion about different cultures and the idea that every family has a history that lives on through children.  We really enjoyed reading this book and were moved by how such a powerful story was told in such an understandable way.  Combined with the beautiful illustrations, this book will continue to be cherished for generations to come, just like the keeping quilt.

By Mary Nobles Hancock and Adrianna Moss

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