Pieces from Life's Crazy Quilt
by Marvin V. Arnett


University of Nebraska Press, 2000, 2003. ISBN 0803210647.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 09/01/2004

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

A length of velvet from an old bathrobe, a scrap from a forgotten apron worn in a kitchen who-knows-where, a touch of white satin from a lost child's baby bonnet—Grace Melissa Sprague treasured these discards and crafted them into art. Now her daughter has followed her mother's calling. But rather than transforming patches of precious fabric into glowing crazy quilts, in Pieces from Life's Crazy Quilt, Marvin V. Arnett has transformed her Detroit childhood memories into stories that are just as comforting and colorful.

Detroit in the 1930s was a tough place to live, particularly for a black family. Arnett recalls that the hard times of the Great Depression hit the city early, before the stock market crash of 1929. When the last Model T car ran off the assembly line at the Ford plant, things turned down and stayed down. It was the year of Arnett's birth.

In this memoir, she recounts her hard growing-up years unflinchingly. The good times—the church as a beacon of hope, her mother's "lighter-than-air" angel food cake, and her own enduring friendship with school chum Beatrice—and the bad—the death of a beloved sister, the ache following the racist remark of a respected teacher.

Each of the thirty chapters takes a sliver of the family's life and weaves a separate story that can stand alone. But together, these patchwork stories portray life in the Green house on Herbert Street as a glory to remember and to inspire.

Just as a quilt has a backing, so did the family—the strong father, William Sprague. The well-traveled man of sophistication, wisdom and some mystery supported his family as a chef; although, as an African-American he had to accept a lesser title. Later, as the Depression deepened, circumstance forced him into less savory jobs, including being a numbers runner for the Detroit Police Department. The support William gave his family was more than financial. He was always there, not only for them but also for their neighbors and community. He helped elderly Mrs. Eubanks gather the strength and nerve to vote for her hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and once took on the Detroit school system when the home economics teacher required the African-American girls to scrub and clean windows while exempting the other students. He won.

While William backed the family, it was Grace Melissa who stitched the love in place. She took that old bathrobe and converted it into an elegant frock for young Marvin. She shepherded her children to the Church of the True Believers, and she practiced what they preached.Of the many delightful pieces in the book, "The Great Feet Washings" is particularly true and telling. Grace Melissa also befriended the isolated Miss Lila and came out like a tiger when a neighborhood clergyman made an inappropriate advance toward her child. The man left town that night.

While Arnett's stories of her girlhood are charming, revealing and intriguing, the story of her book is equally riveting. A federal employee for over twenty-five years (former vice president of the National Organization of Blacks in Government), Arnett wrote her memories and then sought a publisher. Finding none, she published the book herself and sold it when and where she could, including from the back of her car. An instructor in a writing seminar who was entranced by the stories became her champion and brought the book to the attention of writer Tobias Wolff, editor of the prestigious "American Lives" series published by the University of Nebraska Press. This book is now a part of that series.

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