Book review: ‘Persian Pickle Club’ explores Dust Bowl-era Kansas
July 22, 2017
Colorado author Sandra Dallas is well known for her tales of historical fiction set against evocative and familiar western backdrops. The stories are beloved for their moving sense of place and for their firm embodiments of the human condition and the universal bonds of friendship. Her Great Depression era novel, "The Persian Pickle Club" fits as firmly into this framework as does most of her abundant canon of endearing literature.
Set in rural Kansas during the arduous days of swirling dust storms and agricultural hardships, "The Persian Pickle Club" centers on a group of women of diverse ages and characters, unified by their love of quilting and their deep commitment to each other. Rich with an understanding of the place of prominence of quilting circles in the every day life of Americana, Dallas' novel tells of an era when tradition and artistry were vying against progress and industrialization.
Not only does Dallas tackle the unsettled nature of a world at odds with the forward march of the times, but she throws in the engaging puzzle of a little murder mystery to sweeten the plot. In such an insular and close-knit community, it takes an outsider to muster up the enthusiasm for an investigation.
Rita, a young modern woman from Denver, arrives in the small Kansas town, having married into one of the more prominent local families. She joins the quilting club, even though she has never sewed a stitch in her life, an unusual state of affairs for any woman of the 1930s. For this was a time and a place where "a woman without a needle is like a man without a plow."
Queenie, the book's young narrator, finds Rita to be exotic and a welcome breath of fresh air in the dusty confines of the small old-fashioned town. But when the opportunity arises for Rita to write for a paper in nearby Topeka, Queenie sees a nosey side to her new friend that threatens to derail Rita's tentative position as a new member of the Persian Pickle Club.
Complicating things, Rita, eager for any work that might eventually take her and her new husband away from small-town life, jumps at the opportunity to investigate and write an article about the body found buried in a beloved local widow's outlying field.
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Dallas centers much of the story on this point of conflict between the citified notions of Rita and the sisterhood of the loyal members of the Pickle Club. Harveyville, Kansas, is the kind of place where gossip can make or break one's standing in the community; it is a place where everyone knows each other, and where people listen in on each other's phone calls on the phone exchange. No one is pleased that this city girl is poking around for information, and it does not take long before she is accused of "stirring up trouble."
At its heart, though, the book is about loyalty, for in spite of the immense differences between the members of the Persian Pickle Club and their new and more worldly addition, they willfully circle the wagons to protect one of their own. In difficult times, women support women, and that steadfastness of spirit can withstand any storm. It is an endearing theme that Dallas highlights to great effect in a book that a real delight to read.
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