Wild Card Quilt

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (1999), Janisse Ray explored the richness of her childhood among her extended family, and its connections to the natural world in a small town in southern Georgia. In Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home, she has returned as the single mother of nine-year-old Silas, determined to reclaim her grandmother’s abandoned farmhouse, earn her living as a writer, and raise her son with an appreciation of nature and family. Lonely at first, Ray finds community by becoming an activist, helping to save her son’s school and to protect the region’s endangered waterways and forests. In brief essays, she celebrates the traditional art of cane syrup boiling, the small-town local store, alligator trappers, a champion red cedar tree, and heirloom vegetables.

The quilt of the title resonates in several ways. Throughout the book, the author and her mother stitch together a patchwork quilt for the author’s bed. Ray does not share her mother’s taste in color and pattern, nor does she have her mother’s dexterity with a needle. The finished quilt demonstrates mother and daughter, old and new, in a concrete way—and everyone agrees that it is beautiful. Ray sees her life as a quilt, made of lovely discrete pieces forming an overall pattern that is more than the sum of its parts. The book as a whole also resembles a quilt, which is its strength as well as its greatest weakness. Its more than three dozen essays sometimes clash and overlap and repeat in ways that can be distracting when the book is read straight through. This Wild Card Quilt is best appreciated close up, one small piece at a time.