Here’s an interesting and fairly little-known novel that was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.
Book: Nell’s Quilt, Susan Terris, 1996.
This book always left me feeling distinctly unsettled when I read it as a teenager and for that reason it wasn’t exactly on my favourites list. It’s a weird hybrid of a historical fiction novel about a girl chafing against societal expectations, and a novel about anorexia. There’s quite a bit of scholarly work done on the topic of girls and women in the Victorian era starving themselves, but it’s more closely related to theories on control and power dynamics than to body image. I do realize that modern anorexia is also very closely related to those things, but the body image thing is significantly a greater factor than in the Victorian period. Let’s dive in.
Nell is eighteen, and her parents have just informed her that her father’s second cousin Anson Tanner has proposed to her. Nell is staunchly opposed to this—she would rather move to Boston and “help people” as her grandmother did, who was a campaigner for women’s rights. Her mother points out gently that her grandmother’s money is gone and she can’t afford to do so, and her younger sister Eliza says that if she marries Anson the whole family will do much better. “I could not believe my ears. Was this truly 1899, only ten months shy of the beginning of the twentieth century? Or had I been catapulted back into the Middle Ages?” Okay, while I understand what they’re driving at here, 1899 wasn’t exactly the modern era we know and love today. Nell’s total shock at this announcement is a little out of place.
Nell doesn’t want to take on a widower with a small child, though, and flees to look after the chickens in the coop. She wishes her friend Rob, a neighbour, was around to discuss, but is slightly put out by the way everything in her life seems to change all at once. She manages to see him the next week after school, and Nell tells him again how much she wishes she could go to college and how Anson has proposed to her. Rob offers to go to her parents and tell them that he’d rather marry her himself, but Nell is grossed out by this confession. He teases her about Tobias, their hired man, which grosses Nell out even further, and then scuffle and crash through the ice of a very shallow pond. Nell comes home, mucked and freezing, and her mother castigates her for being so late and irresponsible.
Later that week Anson and his mother and his daughter Jewel come for tea, and Nell is bored by the entire proceedings. Looking for something to do, she picks up the a basket of crazy quilt squares left by her late grandmother, and though she professes to hate sewing, she starts leafing through the fabric squares and wondering where they all came from and what amazing things her grandmother did while waering them. Her mother won’t let this stand, though, and encourages Nell to take Jewel for a walk. Jewel is an uncooperative, wizened little four-year-old whom Nell doesn’t like and who doesn’t like Nell, so that walk goes about as well as could be expected. She eventually gets Jewel to swing with her for a bit, and that’s where Anson finds them together and proposes to her face
Nell has a wild idea to become Anson’s housekeeper instead. The worry of marriage weighs on her and takes away her appetite, and when she tries to bring it up with her mother, her mother points out that being poor is an excruciatingly hard life, and Anson will give her some security. Nell says that Anson just wants someone to look after his house, and her mother gently points out that he wants a wife. “Someone who will perform the duties of a wife.” Subtle. Nell is so grievously upset by this that she has to run to the outhouse and vomit.
The next washday Nell is frustrated to find that as usual, the work is falling mostly to her. (I think perhaps being a housekeeper would not be her best decision.) She overhears her mother wishing desperately that they had the money to hire some help, and her father apologizing for not being able to give her the life she deserves. Nell takes this to mean that they’re trying to get rid of her, and if they didn’t have to feed her they’d be able to afford help. She confronts her parents, telling them she’ll marry Anson, and is torn up inside by her fervent desire to please everyone. (Can you see where this is going?)
Nell’s new attitude is met with extremey surprise by everyone in her life, especially her sudden interest in sewing and embroidering on her new quilt. She begins eating sparingly in an effort to “trade places” with her weak younger sister, who will be forced to take on her share of the chores. She runs into Rob again, who offers again to marry her since they’re much better matched. Nell declines—slightly horrified—and carries on with her plan to make Eliza just like her.
Later that summer, she eats progressively less and less and encourages Eliza to do more and more of the work. They squabble and fight like wildcats, and Nell soothes herself by embroidering on her quilt. She eats even less and focuses on what her grandmother must have done—campaigning for millworkers’ rights or health clinics and the like.
At one point she runs into Rob, who asks why she’s off in the middle of the day, and she says “Time off for good behavior, I guess.” This is a joke for someone today, but it wasn’t a common expression—especially among teenage girls—in 1899. At all. This is one of many things that doesn’t make terrific sense with the time period.
A week or so later, Nell confesses to her father that she’s so glad that when she’s married they’ll be able to afford help. Her father, confused, tells her it won’t work that way and they’re already in debt. Nell is frantic at this, although she pretty much made it up out of whole cloth. When her mother brings out the fabric for her wedding dress, she flips out at them all again.
She embroiders more and more on her quilt to distract herself from eating, and begins acting strangely. She wakes up in the middle of the night, starving, and goes out to wander in the woods and climb trees. When she falls out of one, dazed and confused, it’s creepy Tobias who carries her into the barn out of the rain. She heads home, petrified, but thinks she can’t tell anyone since it’s her own fault.
In August they have Anson and his family over to help slaughter the pigs, which is weird as pigs are usually slaughtered in the fall, when it’s cold enough to keep the meat. Jewel wets herself since she’s afraid of the outhouse, and Nell tries to give her a bath and gives up after putting Jewel into the tub. “I’m unable to cope with this,” she says to Eliza, and Eliza points out correctly that in a few weeks she’s going to be this kid’s mom and should probably get over herself.
Nell’s parents take her to the doctor, who diagnoses her with melancholia and neurasthenia, which Nell finds mortifying. She’s supposed to eat well and take an elixir, but Nell tosses her food into the pigs’ bucket as soon as she’s served it. When she sees Rob he begs and pleads with her not to marry Anson, since it’s making her sick, and Nell says she has no choice. Nell’s engagement ring slips off her finger when she’s making soap, and she doesn’t do anything about it.
Rob comes to see her in the middle of the night and begs her one last time to reconsider. He’s leaving, he tells her, and doesn’t know where. Nell won’t do anything, but when she comes back in she’s disgusted by her long wet braid and jacks it off with kitchen scissors.
At this point it takes a turn for the weird. The narration goes from first person to third person. “When I passed the mirror a second time, what I saw was altogether pleasing. I saw someone I liked. It was Nell Edmonds. She was lean and smooth. Her belly was flat. A cap of sleek hair clung to her head. But she didn’t look like a boy, more like a very young girl—a strong and wiry one…Nell stood there for a while looking at herself. Then, satisfied, she extinguished the lamp and went back up to bed.” I think it’s supposed to symbolize Nell’s disassociation, and it’s a really interesting idea, but the execution is a little strange.
The next morning when Nell wakes up and tries to get out of bed, she collapses and when she wakes up she’s in bed with quilts and water bottles. Her parents tell her they’ll look after her and she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and the doctor recommends plenty of food and catering to her whims.
The narrative then changes into present tense, as well. “These days, Nell is spending a good deal of her time either laughing or crying…” and so on. “Today, by noon, she’d already baked a cake for Eliza’s eighteenth birthday, trimmed the lamps, and swept the floors.” But then it switches back into past tense—“she pulled herself to her feet.” I can’t tell if this is a deliberate stylistic choice or slightly messy, but it’s a little bit confusing.
Nell continues to act strangely, sleeping during the day and waking at night. One night she goes to the kitchen to draw herself a bath, and her father startles her by coming in to see what she’s doing. He reads her the riot act—“Do you know how you’re tearing up our lives?” “I’m not doing anything to you.” “Whatever you do to yourself, Nell, you do to us. So it’s about time you stop this demented behavior.” He accuses her of being foolish and foolhardy, unnatural, and says she’s going to kill herself by doing this.
But Nell keeps on keeping on herself, and they have Anson and his people over for Thanksgiving. Nell continues to behave strangely and refuses to eat, and Jewel asks why she looks so much like a monkey. Nell’s behavior is deemed so poor that she stays home while the rest of the family goes to see the Tanners for Christmas, and instead she goes out for a walk in the woods and falls on the ice. She isn’t strong enough to pick herself up, but she’s rescued by Ludie, creepy Tobias’s wife, who takes her home and then slinks off.
On New Year’s Eve, although everyone tries to be deferential to her, Nell can’t stand any attention and flees to the barn. She gradually stops embroidering flowers and keys and stars on her quilt, and begins embroidering weird things—spiders and beetles and maggots—all over her beautiful work. She doesn’t know what to do when she overhears her parents talking about “Anson” and saying “he’d be very happy” and “when she’s ready.” Nell is crushed at the thought that she might have to marry it after all, and focuses on the new basket for her now-ugly quilt. But when she dumps the quilt into the new basket and there’s nothing left but a few little stray pieces of fabric and ribbons, she finds a little slip of paper wedged down in the bottom that reads “Jordan Marsh. Three hundred samples. No two alike.”
Nell realizes finally that the fabric hasn’t been from her grandmother’s clothes (the idea she came up with out of whole cloth), but are only a kit she’d ordered from a department store. Nell never embroiders another thing on it, and stops eating entirely, taking only liquids. She never leaves her room and barely even gets to the chamber pot. She begins sprouting hair all over (lanugo) and having the occasional seizure (!!!). Her mother asks if she won’t regain her health for them, because they love her so much, and Nell confesses she can’t stand to live her mother’s life. Her mother tells her that she chose that life, and the only thing she hates is laundry. Nell is pretty taken aback by this, especially considering she’s based so much on her mom’s horrible life.
Nell can’t seem to shake herself out of this reverie, and when the spring comes she is looking at the window at Anson and Eliza and spots a ring sparkling on Eliza’s hand. She is shocked to find out that Anson is going to marry Eliza, although honestly it makes much more sense—Eliza likes him and Jewel and really wants to get married, after all.
One morning later in the spring, Nell is awoken very early by a rhythmic thud and becomes convinced that someone is building her coffin. She dresses and leaves her room for the first time in months, but finds only Ludie outside the cabin she shares with her husband, sharpening tools. She tells Nell that she lost the baby she had been carrying and that her husband is a filthy monster and she thinks “maybe one day I’ll kill him.” Nell tries to convince Ludie that she can help her, to which Ludie derisively says “Look at you, you scarecrow. You can’t help no one.” Truth. She asks Nell to embroider her something in the center of her now-ugly quilt, and Nell goes home and does it. She embroiders an enormous blood-red amaranth flower in the very center and puts her name at the bottom. The end. Done.
But when Nell hears her sister asking their mother if Nell would consider giving her the beautiful quilt as a wedding gift, Nell loses it again. She fills their cauldron and mixes all their dyes together to create the blackest black she can imagine and dumps her quilt into the water. It turns out to be a mixture of blacks—blacks, bronzes, golds, ugly charred-looking colours. It dries and she puts it on her bed, pulls it over herself, and declares that she will die now.
But their cat has had kittens, and now they’re big enough to need homes, and there isn’t anyone else to look after them. “This wasn’t right,” she thinks,–“it wasn’t her. IT was ME. I was the one—I, Eleanor Sara Edmonds, was trapped there, unable to move, unable to change anything.” Suddenly she feels an inner force surging, and she sits up and thinks “No, no, no…”
I’m really not sure where this is supposed to be. Does she die? Does she experience some great upheaval and turn her life around and start eating again and live? I know it’s left intentionally ambiguous, but so much of the book is ambiguous that it would have been nice to have a solid ending.
Rating: B. It’s above-average, for a YA book, and I suppose it’s one of very few historical fiction books to deal with an eating disorder, and that makes it valuable. Nell is a fairly unlikable protagonist, but I’m not sure how much of that is my reflecting back on it now, and how unlikable she’d be to a teenage reader. The last quarter or so of the book tries to make a good stab at showing how Nell’s actions are affecting the rest of her family, but it’s a bit less realistic, I think. Nell’s inner struggle is a little bit glossed over, and I suppose if the author is going for the idea that even Nell doesn’t know what she’s doing this for, it’s pretty solid. All in all, it’s an interesting book, but better suited for older teens—younger teens would probably find it fairly unsettling, as I did on first read and subsequent rereads.