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Memoir Review    



Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home
By Janisse Ray
Milkweed Editions, 2003
Hardcover, $22.00 (308 pages)
ISBN: 1-57131-272-2

In her preface to Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home, Janisse Ray states that she returned to south Georgia after attending graduate school in Montana because she wanted "wholeness" but found instead an "erosion of human bonds - both to each other and to the land."  Despite the fragmentation that greets her when she moves to her grandmother's long uninhabited farm, Ray demonstrates that "a life constructed of stories can be had" throughout her elegant, passionate memoir.

Like Ray's first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Wild Card Quilt deals extensively with environmental issues and is particularly concerned with the vanishing longleaf pine ecosystems of south Georgia.  However, Ray subtly changes her narrative tactics in Wild Card Quilt by embedding environmentalism into the story instead of separating her musings on home, environment, and society into essay-like chapters as she does in Ecology

Throughout Wild Card Quilt, Ray deploys the quilt to symbolize the silent narratives, compromises, patterns, landscapes, and traditions woven through individuals' actions "into beauty."  But for Ray, the quilt's symbolic and textual value always remains secondary to its social function.  Crafting it allows Ray to communicate with her mother and to reenter into her community on her own terms.  Such an ability to mix the poetic with the everyday characterizes Ray's writing style and makes Wild Card Quilt a powerful text, which moves rapidly from eloquent and beautiful images of place, artifact, and person to such mundane realities as a blocked septic tank and a rotted kitchen screen door.

Ray's move home involves various practical and ideological negotiations.  For instance, Ray mourns the loss of intellectual culture and writes, "Our town had no coffee shop or other hangout.  If I ran into someone, such as my cousin Sue or Silas's teacher, it was at the library or supermarket.  I missed public dialogue such as I'd experienced other places.  I missed depth of connection.  Most days I found no one I could talk to about the joy in my life, or the terror."   As Ray attempts to reconcile herself with the geographic and human landscapes of her childhood, she also struggles to redefine the intellectual and emotional goals of relationships.  She finds herself reworking bonds from her childhood with members of the community like her parents, her Uncle Percy, and E.D. the picture-taker.     

Ray subtly interweaves issues of community, environment, politics, gender, familial obligation, creativity, authorship, education, craft, and beauty into a story of self-production.  Wild Card Quilt leaves the reader impressed with a sense of Ray's local and personal discoveries.  Moreover, the book acts as a call to action on a personal scale, suggesting how people can relearn the landscapes of their childhood and reintegrate themselves into familial and community structures that perhaps deserve a second chance.

This is Ray's second book-length work of nonfiction.  Her Ecology of a Cracker Childhood won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, the Southeast Booksellers Award for Nonfiction, the American Book Award, and the Southern Environmental Law Center Book Award.  Additionally, Ray has published essays and poems in a variety of periodicals.  Recently, Ray was named the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss.  

Emily Bowles
Southern Scribe Reviews


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