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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Book Discussion: The Persian Pickle Club

Yesterday, my group at the Berwyn Library discussed The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas. This deceptively thin novel packs more of a punch than I was expecting. The story is narrated by Queenie, a young, married woman in Harveyville, Kansas during the dust bowl years. The titular club is what the women of the town who get together to gossip and quilt call themselves. They are a group of extremely varied women, in age and demeanor, but they all love their community and look out for each other. The story begins when Rita, a city girl, marries into the community. Rita has higher ambitions; she wants to be a newspaper reporter. When one of the club member's missing husband is found buried in a shallow grave, 1 year after his disappearance, Rita is on the case. Her investigation leads all of the women to learn even more about the true nature of friendship.

The Persian Pickle Club was a refreshing choice for our group. We meet every single month, and as you can see by perusing the posts on our discussions, our books tend to be pretty serious and issue oriented (as many book discussion books are). However, this novel was light, but not unsophisticated. There was enough to talk about, as I will get to, but overall it was a heartwarming, nostalgic story about the universal power of friendship to overcome even the worst circumstances. As an experienced book discussion group leader, I would highly recommend searching out a lighter, uplifting book to throw into the mix once or twice a year.

But now on to the discussion itself...

We spent a great deal of time talking about the value of 1 person in the group; both in terms of how each person adds to the larger product of the quilt, and how much each member meant to the others, personally. This led to a larger discussion about quilting (of which we knew very little about as a group), but more interestingly, also led us to talk about the loss of community in modern society. Some of my older members talked about not knowing their neighbors like they used to. We did move into ways that communities try to still look out for each other, but how it is harder today. We agreed that it did help that these women had the combined hardship of the dust bowl to unite them. But, while in the book, for example, the Judd family, who ran the local banks, ignored the unpaid mortgages on the Harveyville farms, we all knew that that does not happen today (just look at our current "mortgage crisis).

The group did not mind that the dust bowl background was only glossed over in Dallas' novel. It was mentioned that the edition of a well fleshed out squatter family helped to "set the stage" so to speak. Another member mentioned how she could tell how bad the conditions really were by the comments about children who had never seen rain and how the overwhelming dryness became a source of humor and jokes for the townsfolk. For her, this use of dialog did a great job of articulating the setting.

The final third of the discussion focused on the resolution of the mystery itself. SPOILER ALERT. Skip to the readalikes if you do not want to know the end. It turns out, all of the women in the group "admit" to killing Ben, Ella's husband. He was abusive. It appears he attacked Ella just as she was about to host a Pickle meeting. My group did not mind that we will never know who actually killed Ben, but they appreciated how the group functioned as one, and if one of them did it, they all did. Rita learns the true power of friendship, does not turn the women in (not that it would matter; the Sheriff knows and is ignoring the truth), and even learns to quilt.

There are a few other surprises I have left out, but the overall point is that these women all grow throughout the course of the novel, and my group appreciated spending time with them. I should also mention how much everyone enjoyed Queenie as a narrator. She was a multidimensional character, with a good sense of humor. She was consistent but still managed to surprise me up to the end. As a content wife myself, I also liked that she was in an equal, supportive, and fulfilling marriage.

If you enjoyed the dust bowl setting of The Persian Pickle Club there are many suggestions. A few that Kathy compiled for the Berwyn Library are Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (audio CD), and American Experience: Surviving the Dustbowl (Documentary, DVD). In nonfiction there is also the award winning and recent title The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan.

Kathy also had a few other suggestions for our book groups including the fiction titles Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flag, A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck, The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood, and the Elm Creek Quilts novels by Jennifer Chiaverini. (As usual, please see the Amazon records for summaries, reviews and customer comments)

I would also add Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons by Laura Landvik to this list. And don't forget, there are also many nonfiction books on quilting to be found at any public library under the Dewey Number 746.46.

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