The Persian Pickle Club
BY SANDRA DALLAS
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.
“A colorful exploration of Depression-era Kansas and the meaning of friendship.”
—New York Times Book Review
In 1933, shortly after they were married in Illinois, my parents both lost their jobs. So they moved to Harveyville, Kansas to live on my paternal grandparents’ farm and earn their keep by doing farm work. One morning, a neighbor stopped by and offered to pay a dollar for a day’s work in the fields. Dad and his brother flipped a coin to see which one of them would get the job. Dad won, and he worked so hard that he finished up by noon and was paid just four bits. That was the only money he earned all summer. My parents are not Tom and Rita in The Persian Pickle Club, but their desire to move off the farm gave me the idea for the book. By the way, the Ritter farm is my grandparents’ farm in Harveyville, and Mrs. Ritter is based on Grandma Dallas.
AN EXCERPT FROM
The Persian Pickle Club
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 willow,” 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 live.
“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.