In her magical, memorable novel, Sandra Dallas explores the ties of loyalty and friendship that unite the women in a quilting circle in Depression-era Kansas
It is the 1930s, and hard times have hit Harveyville, Kansas, where the crops are burning up, and there's not a job to be found. For Queenie Bean, a young farm wife, a highlight of each week is the gathering of the Persian Pickle Club, a group of local ladies dedicated to improving their minds, exchanging gossip, and putting their quilting skills to good use. When a new member of the club stirs up a dark secret, the women must band together to support and protect one another.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed "a quintessential American voice" by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride's House, Whiter Than Snow, Prayers for Sale and Tallgrass, among others. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.
Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride’s House, Whiter Than Snow, Prayers for Sale and Tallgrass, among others. Her novels have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.
Read an Excerpt
The Persian Pickle Club
By Sandra Dallas
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Sandra Dallas
All rights reserved.
The first time she saw the members of the Persian Pickle Club, Rita told me after I got to know her, she thought we looked just like a bunch of setting hens. She'd learned all about setting hens that very morning after she'd gone out to the henhouse to gather eggs. Rita's luck must have been under a bucket, because Agnes T. Ritter saw her checking the roosters, and in that nasty way Agnes T. Ritter has, she told Rita just why she wasn't going to find eggs under a rooster. Then she told Rita to leave the broody hens alone unless she wanted scrambled chicks for breakfast.
How would anybody expect Rita to know about hens and roosters when she'd never lived in the country before? Like most town folks, Rita never cared where eggs came from, and after she found out, why, then she didn't care if she ever ate one again. Rita was a big city girl from Denver who had more important things to study in college than chickens, like learning how to become a famous writer. I'd never known a woman who wanted to be anything more than a farmwife.
Rita was right about us looking like a coop full of biddies. We sat there at Ada June's dining room table, clucking as Rita walked in. Then our eyes bugged out, making us look dumb enough to knit with wet spaghetti. I stopped sewing, with my hand in the air, and held it there so long that Mrs. Judd told me, "Put down your needle, Queenie Bean, and don't stare."
Well, I can tell you, I wasn't the only one staring! Even Mrs. Judd was peering with watery eyes through her little gold-rimmed glasses. How could she help it? How could any of us help it? We'd all heard Tom's wife was a looker. After he met Rita at the Ritter place, Grover came right home and told me she was the nicest thing he'd seen since rain — not that he remembered much about rain, or that Grover was a good judge of what was pretty, for that matter. He thinks Lottie, the two-year-old pie-eyed heifer we just got, is a looker, too.
Grover was right about Tom's wife, however. Rita was as pretty as pie. She had curls like fresh-churned butter, not at all like my straight brown bob, and eyes as big and round as biscuits. Rita was little. I am, too, but next to me, Rita was a regular Teenie Weenie, not much over five feet or a hundred pounds. Her hands were as plump as a baby's, smooth and soft, and the nails were polished. She smelled good, too, not just a little vanilla behind the ears the way I do it, but real perfume, the nice kind that they sell in the drugstores in Topeka. We were chickens, all right, and Rita was a hummingbird. It gave us all pleasure just to look at her.
All of us except for Agnes T. Ritter. She stood behind Rita looking sour as always, like the wind was blowing past a manure pile right in her direction. President Roosevelt could get out of his wheelchair and ask her to dance, and she'd act like she was two-stepping with the hired man. Agnes T. Ritter had turned up her little sliver of a lip at Rita's dress, which was as dainty as a hanky, made of strips of lace and red silk. I could see the strap of a red slip that she wore under it, and I meant to ask Ada June where anybody bought a red slip. Grover'd think I'd gone to town for sure if I put on red underwear. We always dressed up for Persian Pickle Club, but none of us wore anything as fancy as that, certainly not Agnes T. Ritter, who wore $1.49 housedresses from the Spiegel catalog and made her own slips. It didn't matter how she dressed, of course, because she was as knobby as a washboard. Agnes T. Ritter, you sure are jealous, I thought.
That's when I decided I would be a good friend to Rita. She could use one, with Agnes T. Ritter for a sister-in-law. And with Ruby gone to California and never coming back, I myself needed a best friend my own age.
"This is Rita, Tom's wife," said Mrs. Ritter, who was Agnes T. Ritter's mother and Rita's new mother-in-law. Naturally, we knew Rita was Rita, but I guess Mrs. Ritter felt it might be a good idea to say something, since not one of us had given her a word of welcome. Our manners must have been under that same bucket with Rita's luck.
I was the first one to speak, as I usually am. I smoothed the rickrack around the neck of my dress and said, "I'm Queenie Rebecca Bean, Grover's wife. We're glad Tom came back and brought you with him, because Tom is Grover's best friend, even though Grover went to farming instead of to the university. We live out in the country, three farms down from you, in the yellow house that looks like dried egg yolks. The place is even brighter in the fall when the willows turn. Grover says it's like living inside a lemon." I stopped long enough to take a breath, then added before anyone else could speak, "Welcome to Pickle. I'm the youngest member." Grover always says I'm the talkingest woman he knows when I get nervous. Grover doesn't say a word when he's rattled, so together, we're about normal.
Rita ran the tip of her tongue over her upper lip and looked at me out of the corner of her eye.
"I like a stand of willows," muttered Opalina Dux, who said something queer most times she opened her mouth. So no one paid attention to her.
Ada June Zinn, who was the hostess that day, said, "I guess Queenie spoke for all of us. Welcome to the Persian Pickle Club."
Rita put out her hand, and Ada June stared at it until Mrs. Judd said, "Shake it, Ada June. That's what it's there for." In Harveyville, women didn't shake hands with one another. Ada June wasn't quite sure what to do, so she put the tips of her fingers into Rita's palm. Rita went around the circle, offering her hand to everybody, and when she came to me, I shook it hard, and she winked at me.
When Rita was finished with the handshakes, she and Mrs. Ritter sat down in the two empty chairs at the end of the table. It was a minute before Ada June realized she hadn't counted Rita when she'd set out the chairs. She was one short, and there was no place for Agnes T. Ritter to sit. Ada June jumped up and got an old straight-back from the kitchen, and we all moved around to make room. Left standing is the story of Agnes T. Ritter's life.
"Did you bring sewing?" Mrs. Judd asked Rita. Mrs. Judd knew she hadn't, of course. Rita couldn't have gotten a pin into that tiny purse of hers.
"Oh," Rita said. "I don't sew."
I'd never met a woman who didn't sew. None of us had, and we stared at her again, until Ceres Root said with a nice smile, "You modern women have so many interesting things to do. In this day and age, there's no good reason to make thirteen quilt tops before you marry, like I had to when I was a girl." We all nodded, except for Mrs. Judd, who wasn't one to make excuses for other people. Agnes T. Ritter didn't nod, either. A hundred quilt tops wouldn't help her find a husband.
"Sewing's a snap," I told Rita. "You'll pick it up fast."
Agnes T. Ritter snorted. She opened her work basket and pulled out a sock and put it over a darning egg. "You could try mending. I hope to say I'm not going to darn your husband's socks for the rest of my life."
Agnes T. Ritter was the only one who took mending or plain sewing to the Persian Pickle Club on what we called Quilter's Choice Day. That meant the hostess didn't have a quilt ready for us to work on, so we brought our own piecing or fancywork. We all liked Quilter's Choice because we saw the designs the other club members were working on and swapped scraps of material. There wasn't a quilt top turned out by a member of the Persian Pickle Club that didn't have fabrics from all of us in it. That made us all a part of one another's quilts, just like we were part of one another's lives.
Agnes T. Ritter was as good a quilter as any of us — except for Ella, of course. Nobody quilted as well as she did. But Agnes T. Ritter wasn't any good at piecing. Her quilts were just comforts made of big wool squares cut out from old trousers and blankets and tacked instead of quilted. You put one of those on the bed, and you thought you were sleeping under a flatiron. She said she'd just as soon stitch the pieces together with her sewing machine as sew it by hand. Agnes T. Ritter was not born to quilt like the rest of us. We'd rather quilt than eat, even in times like these, when some didn't have much choice. I hoped Rita would learn to like quilting as much as I did.
"If Rita doesn't sew, she can read to us," said Mrs. Judd.
"Oh, Septima," Nettie Burgett said as she bit off the thread on a tea towel she was embroidering. "Can't we skip the reading just this one time? We want to get to know Rita."
Mrs. Judd didn't answer, just squinted at Nettie through her thick lenses until Nettie blushed and looked down at her sewing. Mrs. Judd liked to remind us that the Persian Pickle Club had been formed to improve the mind, not just to make bedcovers.
"I don't care if I do," Rita said. I guessed she was tired of people staring at her and asking her questions. Maybe she was afraid we were all like Agnes T. Ritter and would start picking at her.
"Choose something from One Hundred and One Famous Poems," I said. It was the only book in Ada June's house except for the Bible and the dictionary and a set of A through C and P through R of the encyclopedia. We'd heard every poem in that book, but it was better than Scripture. I did wish, however, that one day Mrs. Judd would open the P through R volume and suggest that we read about the pygmies who didn't wear clothes. I'd seen the picture. So had Ella, who'd been looking over my shoulder. She'd giggled, then put her hand over her mouth like we were naughty girls. She had a child's sweet disposition, and things tickled Ella so these days.
Ada June handed the poetry book to Rita, who leafed through it, then stopped and read something to herself.
"Out loud," Mrs. Judd said, and Rita turned red, while Agnes T. Ritter snickered.
"It's Carl Sandburg," Rita said.
"Oh, that's not poetry. Give us something that rhymes," Mrs. Judd told her.
"How about 'Trees?'" I asked.
"You know that by heart, Queenie," Mrs. Judd told me. "Read Mr. Longfellow's Paul Revere."
The rest of us sighed. Paul Revere's Ride was Mrs. Judd's favorite, and it lasted an hour. It made a nice rhythm for quilting, but, my, I was tired of it.
Rita read until she was hoarse, while the rest of us stitched and drowsed and made little sewing noises. Nettie's big shears sounded like tin snips when she cut a thread. Opalina's damp needle squeaked every now and then as she pushed it through her fabric. Her hands sweat a lot. Forest Ann's quilt pieces rustled and crackled. She was making a Grandmother's Flower Garden, and had backed each little five-sided piece with same-size patterns cut from a letter. Mrs. Judd kept time to the rhythm of the poem with her needle, flashing it back and forth before taking tiny stitches in her quilt square. I never knew how a woman with hands as big as chicken hawks could make such neat stitches.
It seemed that there never was a poem as long as Paul Revere's Ride, and when Rita finally read the last line, Ada June snatched the book out of her hands and said, "The teakettle's on. Rita, would you help me put out the refreshments?"
"I'll help, too," I said, and put my sewing down before Mrs. Judd could fuss at me. You didn't need three people to serve refreshments, but I wanted to tell Rita not to let Mrs. Judd bother her, because she had a nice side when you got to know her. She was loyal, too. There never was a woman as loyal as Septima Judd, but that was true of all the Pickles.
Ada June had the same thought, because when I reached the kitchen, I heard her whisper to Rita, "Don't mind Mrs. Judd. Her bark's worse than her bite. She's as good a woman as you'll find in the state of Kansas."
"If you can put up with living in the same house with Agnes T. Ritter, Mrs. Judd's no trouble at all," I added, picking a thread off my dress.
Ada June laughed behind her hand at that, then put on her apron and went to the icebox for the bread pudding, which was her specialty. She wasn't much of a housekeeper, her quilt stitches were big enough to catch a toenail, and with six kids, she'd grown as lumpy as a Kansas sand hill, but Ada June Zinn sure could make bread pudding. Buck Zinn said he was a goner the minute he tasted it. Buck rode into Harveyville on a sorrel named Roxie one day on his way to Wyoming, where he was going to be a cowboy. Then he caught sight of Ada June sitting on her folks' veranda and stopped to pass the time of day. He stayed for supper and ate a dish of Ada June's bread pudding, then a second helping, and asked if anybody in Harveyville was looking for a hired hand.
"Wait till you taste Ada June's bread pudding. She's famous for it," I said. When I saw Ada June blush, I knew she'd made it in honor of Rita, so I laid it on as thick as cream. "Bread pudding's like quilting. Ada June and I can take the same pattern and the same material, but our quilts are as different as the sun and moon. I use stale bread and milk and eggs, but my bread pudding's as dull as Jell-O, while Ada June's is fine enough to take first prize at the state fair. It would if the fair had a category for bread pudding, that is. You know what I mean?"
"Oh, I've never made bread pudding. I don't like it much," Rita said.
Of course, Rita couldn't know that she'd hurt Ada June's feelings, because she didn't know how special that bread pudding was. I patted Ada June's arm and called into the other room, "Guess what we've got for refreshments?"
Everybody else carried on over Ada June's dessert just as I had. Ella clapped her hands and said, "My favorite!" The others put aside their sewing so they'd have room in their laps for refreshments. Ada June, Rita, and I carried the dishes into the room, and nobody said another word, except for compliments, until the pudding was gone and Ada June began clearing the bowls. Ceres Root, who is the only living founding member of the Persian Pickle Club, picked the last raisin out of her dish with her fingers and asked Rita if she'd met Tom in college.
Rita glanced at Agnes T. Ritter, then said, "He was a customer at the Koffee Kup Kafe, where I was a waitress. Tom came in for coffee and left me a twenty-five-cent tip. He did that every day for a week. Then he invited me to the picture show. It was Son of Kong."
"How romantic," Ella Crook whispered. She was small and wispy and blushed when she talked, as if she ought not to have spoken. We had to listen hard to understand her, but we always strained our ears, because she didn't speak up often. Besides, we loved her so.
"There wasn't anything romantic about Son of Kong. Don't you remember? We saw it over to Topeka," Mrs. Judd said. She was the blusteriest member of the club and the hardest to please, but in all the years I'd known her, I never heard Mrs. Judd say a cross word to Ella.
"I like that monkey," Ella said, then blushed and picked up her sewing.
"Rita's cafe was one of those places that never heard of nutrition and spells Koffee Kup Kafe with K's," Agnes T. Ritter said. She meant for us to frown, but I thought using K instead of C was classy. Make that klassy. I thought Rita would appreciate the little joke, and I hoped I'd remember to tell it to her. I also decided that as soon as I finished the Double Wedding Ring quilt I was piecing, I would make a Koffee Kup Kwilt. Just you wait, Agnes T. Ritter!
"I thought you went to the university," Forest Ann Finding said. Forest Ann was a widow lady and Nettie's sister-in-law, because Nettie was married to Forest Ann's brother, Tyrone. Forest Ann was still pretty and slender, with hair the rusty color of ripe maize and freckles like a sprinkling of cinnamon across her nose, while Nettie, even though she was younger, had gray hair and skin. Being Tyrone Burgett's wife was harder than being his sister.
"Oh, I did, but I worked, too. After Tom and I got married, I worked full-time, since there wasn't enough money for both of us to go to school. I want to get a degree, too, like Agnes, only in English. Agnes has a degree in home economics."
"They know that," Agnes T. Ritter said. She'd always thought she was better than the rest of us, even though home economics wasn't something important like teaching. I thought it was stupid to spend all that money going to college to learn the very thing you learned growing up on a farm.
Excerpted from The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas. Copyright © 1995 Sandra Dallas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
It is the 1930s, and hard times have hit Harveyville, Kansas, where the crops are burning up, and there's not a job to be found. For Queenie Bean, a young farm wife, a highlight of each week is the gathering of the Persian Pickle Club, a group of local ladies dedicated to improving their minds, exchanging gossip, and putting their quilting skills to good use. When a new member of the club stirs up a dark secret, the women must band together to support and protect one another. In her magical, memorable novel, Sandra Dallas explores the ties that unite women through good times and bad.