Not long after The Quilt That Walked to Golden, my history of quilting in Colorado and the mountain states, was published in 2004, a friend challenged me to turn the title story into a children’s book. I wrote a draft, but it was the wrong length for the genre, and I put it aside. When Sleeping Bear Press approached me about writing a book for children, I was intrigued. I’d grown up with the “Little House” books, which is where my interest in western history began, and I decided to get serious about The Quilt Walk, as I’d titled the book.
I wanted to write more than just an adventure story about a little girl who goes west, however. I don’t set out to write message books (although they sometimes turn out that way.) Still, I wanted Emmy Blue, my little heroine, to mature, to realize that life has problems and challenges as well as happy events. So Emmy Blue learns about domestic abuse and about lack of options for women in 1864 America. I don’t hit young readers over the head with the status of Victorian women—after all, this is an adventure story–but these themes are woven into the fabric of Emmy Blue’s journey from Illinois to Colorado. I want to entertain young readers, but I also want to make them think.
The Quilt Walk
BY SANDRA DALLAS
Ho for Colorado! It’s 1864, and Thomas Hatchett has just told his family they will move west. He’ll sell the farm, buy a covered wagon, and load it with construction supplies. Pa plans to build a business block in the frontier town of Golden, Colorado. There is no place in the wagon for trunks of clothes, so Ma and their daughter, Emmy Blue, must put on their dresses, one on top of the other, and wear them all the way to Golden.
Ma knows the West means freedom for a man and is a place where Pa can have a better life, but for her, it means leaving behind everything she cares for and loves. A courageous and strong woman with a stout heart, Ma accepts Pa’s decisions the way she accepts dandelions—because she can’t do a thing about them.
But what about ten-year-old Emmy Blue? Part of the little girl wants the excitement of going to a new place where the family might become rich. After all, Golden is the Wild West. She’d be busy watching out for Indians and hunting for gold. But the other part of her wants to stay in Illinois, with her friends and grandparents.
During her final good-bye, Grand Mouse gives Emmy Blue tiny fabric pieces. Concerned that Colorado is no place for a proper young lady, Grandma Mouse is determined that Emmy Blue learns to sew. Emmy Blue’s journey west becomes a quilt walk.
"Solid writing and a close attention to details make this story more than the sum of its parts. Finely stitched.”
"Dallas’s story delivers a satisfying child’s-eye view of America’s westward expansion.”
AN EXCERPT FROM
The Quilt Walk
Pa said we were to leave at first light, but the sun was half-way up the sky by the time he flicked the whip over the oxen and yelled out, “Ho for Colorado!”
For once, I was not to blame for the delay.
We were up early, had eaten our breakfast of cold cornbread and buttermilk before the sky was gray. I had not expected to sleep much that night, knowing the day had finally arrived to be off. We’d been planning the trip for months, ever since Pa returned from Colorado Territory and announced we were moving to Golden. He had been gone almost a year. Gold had been discovered in the Rocky Mountains in 1858, and just four years later, Pa had gone off to find himself a mine. He’d promised to come home with a wheelbarrow full of nuggets, but not only had he returned without the wheelbarrow, but there was not a single flake of gold in his pockets.
“We’re moving where?” Ma asked, grabbing onto the back of a chair. Only four days after Pa returned, he announced that he was uprooting us, that we would move to Golden next spring, the spring of 1864.
“To Golden. It’s a town at the edge of the Colorado mountains, a booming town where we’ll get rich, Meggie.” Ma’s real name was Margaret, but everybody called her Meggie.
“But you said you would get rich by finding a gold mine. Are there gold mines in Golden?”
“No, Meggie, of course not. I told you it’s a town,” Pa replied. He sounded exasperated, as he always did when he had to explain something. “Anybody can find a gold mine–.”
“Anybody?’ Ma interrupted. I caught a hint of scorn in her voice, but if Pa heard it, he ignored it.
“All it takes to find a mine is luck, and I didn’t have it. Now, I won’t be depending on luck. I’m using my head instead. The thing is, the miners need provisions, places to buy their picks and shovels and gold pans, their food supplies, before they head off to the mountains. That means mercantile stores and hardware establishments, hotels and places to eat, offices for lawyers and banks. And they all need someplace to set up. Golden is as bustling a place as you ever saw, but it is filled with log cabins, even sod huts, which are houses made from strips of prairie sod laid on top of each other. Golden needs buildings, and I propose to build a business block. I’ll make a fortune from ‘mining the miners.’ I’m going to load a wagon with construction supplies, and we’ll go to Golden.”
“By ourselves?” Ma sat down in her kitchen rocker, and I perched on the footstool. Pa had gone to Colorado to make enough money to pay off the mortgage on our farm, which was several miles from Quincy, Illinois. He had never spoken about leaving Quincy.
“No, of course not by ourselves. Will has decided to come, too.” Will was Pa’s brother.
“And Catherine? Did she agree to go?”
Pa tightened his hand on the back of Ma’s rocker. “Catherine is a dutiful wife. She will do as Will says.”
“I would never describe Catherine is dutiful. She is too independent.” Ma took a deep breath and leaned back in the rocker. Then she asked softly, “What you are saying is you expect me to be a dutiful wife. You made this decision without consulting me. What if I don’t want to go, Thomas?”
Pa frowned at her. “You are my wife,” he said in a voice that was tinged with harshness. “You may stay if you wish, but I will not be here.”
I stared hard at Ma. Did Pa mean that? Would he leave us behind? He had stayed away a year, and I’d been afraid the entire time he was gone that something had happened to him, that he’d gotten sick or had fallen off a mountain. Ma’d never said anything, but I knew she’d worried, too. What would we do if he abandoned us now? I bit my lip so hard I could taste the blood.
“I have already made inquiries about selling the farm,” Pa continued. “Don’t you see, Catherine, I can get enough for the place to buy what we need. If I stayed here…another bad crop year…we’d lose everything.”
“I’ll go, Pa,” I said in a small voice, because he didn’t like it when I spoke up. Children should be seen and not heard, he’d told me often enough, although I was ten now and thought I had a right to voice my own opinions. I had learned a great deal about Colorado in school and knew it was a wild place, with gunslingers and wild Indians, outlaws and prospectors. Some of them had found gold just by throwing a hat on the ground. It sounded much more exciting than Quincy, where I was expected to act like a young lady, to sit and quilt with Ma and Aunt Catherine, to practice my embroidery. Ma had sent me to a school for girls for a time, a place where I was supposed to learn to be a lady, to have fine manners and cross-stitch a sampler. Our crops had failed, however, and there hadn’t been enough money for me to continue. I hadn’t minded, however. I wasn’t very good at sewing and had to take out so many of the cross-stitches that I thought my eyes would cross.
But those weren’t the only reasons I spoke up. Ma would never let me go with Pa by myself. She’d have to come with us. We wouldn’t be separated again.
Instead of reprimanding me, Pa grinned. “You see, Meggie, Emmy Blue knows we can get a start there.” He leaned over and took Mother’s hands. His voice softened. “That’s what we need, Meggie. What will happen if we lose the farm? We can’t live with your folks again. Your father has said often enough that I’m a poor provider. This will give us a fresh start. I won’t have to worry about your father waiting for me to fail. Again.”
“But those are the people I love. How can I leave them, my family, our neighbors? Will I ever sit and quilt with friends again? Moving west is a fine thing for a man. It means freedom and a chance for a better life for you. But it doesn’t mean a thing to me. I’ll be leaving behind everything I care about—home, church, school for Emmy Blue. Who knows if there are schools in Colorado. Or churches?”
“If there aren’t, you can start them. Come with me, Meggie. You will do well. You have a stout heart. It will be a better life, I promise.”
“Do I have a choice? There is stubbornness in you as big as a mule.” She looked sad, and I knew she was thinking not only about her family but about the graves in the cemetery, the ones we visited every Sunday. Ma didn’t talk about the babies she’d lost. She said it wasn’t proper. But I knew she grieved for them, the four babies born after me—“Little Chester, four months and one day” the writing on his tombstone read, “Agnes Ruth, two years, three months, and seven days. There were two babies who hadn’t lived long enough to be given names. Their gravestones read “Baby Hatchett, six days” and “Sweet Baby Girl, one day.” Sometimes Ma would take her quilting and sit in the Hatchett plot, which was surrounded by an iron fence, her back against a marker, the sewing in her lap, gazing out toward the hill. She said it was peaceful in that place.
There hadn’t been much time for sitting among the gravestones after Pa announced we were moving to Colorado. Ma didn’t complain. She said once about dandelions that if we couldn’t do anything about them, we’d just have to enjoy them. That was the way she treated almost everything. If a thing couldn’t be helped, she accepted it. Once the decision was made to go to Colorado, Ma made up her mind to like it. Not that her parents did, however. Grandpa Bluestone told Pa he ought to be horsewhipped for taking Ma out where she could be killed by wild Indians, and Grandma Mouse cried and cried and said she’d never see Ma or me again.
Grandma Mouse wasn’t her real name. She was called that because she was so small—and because she had a pinched face and beady eyes like a mouse, I thought. She was really Emma Bluestone, and I was named for her. Only at the last minute, Ma told me, Pa rebelled at calling me exactly for Grandma Mouse, so he’d written my name in the Bible as Emily Bluestone Hatchett. Perhaps it is a good thing I don’t have her full name, since I am not at all like her. She is tiny, hence her name, while at ten, I am already a good four inches taller, with brown eyes that are unlike her blue ones. She is fine-boned, but I am gangly and awkward—unladylike, Grandma Mouse says, but Ma calls me high-spirited. “There is time enough for her to become a lady,” she told Grandma Mouse.
“It wouldn’t hurt for her to begin now. She could start by threading our needles for us. Nothing befits a lady more than fine stitching.” Grandma Mouse loved to tell how as a girl, she and her sisters would sit under the quilt frame threading needles for the stitchers and dreaming of the day when she could join them as a quilter. Ma had learned quilting from her.
So one day when the quilting circle met at our house, Ma told Abigail Stark, my best friend, and me that we were to sit under the quilt frame while the guests quilted and thread their needles. We sat there for an hour, oppressed by the quilt above us, our hands sweaty as we tried to poke the thread through the eyes of the needles. As she licked the end of a length of thread that refused to cooperate, Abigail pointed to a woman’s shoe, and I saw that it was untied. The shoes belonged to Miss Browning, a woman we disliked because she called us disheveled urchins and told on us when we stole apples off her tree. I picked up her laces so gently that the woman did not feel it, at first meaning to tie them for her. But instead, I tied them to the laces of her other shoe. When the women stood up to roll the quilt, Miss Browning tripped and fell against a table, and her elbow landed in a plate of gingerbread Ma had set out. Then she knocked a display of pinecones resting on the sideboard, to the floor, smashing them.
Grandma Mouse, who had glued the pinecones together, called us disgraceful and insisted we be punished. And Miss Browning shrieked that the gingerbread would stain the elbow of her white blouse. So Ma, a look of furry on her face, took us both by our arms and dragged us down the hall and into the kitchen, shutting the door.
“Ma–,” I began.
But she put up her hand and shook her head. Then she clamped her hand over her mouth, because she had begun to laugh. She did her best to suppress the noise, and it came out as a snort. Then she wiped her eyes, because she had laughed so hard, she cried. “You bad, bad girls,” she said and began to laugh again. When she got control of herself, she said, “I have tried to find a way to get rid of that pinecone horror ever since your grandmother gave it to us.” She shook her head. “Did you see the look on Miss Browning’s face. Oh, how she plagued me when I was a girl, and now you have got even with her for me. Did you notice how many of the other women smiled. Miss Browning is not a favorite among us, and she will never live it down.”
Abigail looked at me as if my mother had gone crazy. Ma caught the look and said, “You need not fear, Abigail. I have my wits about me. Then she took a broom handle and knocked it against a cushion on a chair. I caught her meaning, and cried out, “No, Ma. I’m sorry. Don’t whip me.”
She made a few more whacks, then said, “This is our secret, girls. Now go to the barn to play where the ladies can’t see you.” Before she left, she cut a piece of gingerbread for each of us.
That was the last time until now, that Grandma Mouse had suggested I learn to sew.
“Emmy Blue is helping in other ways,” Mother said, whenever Grandma Mouse brought up the subject of my making a quilt to take to Golden.
“Well, I hope Colorado Territory is not so uncivilized that she will fail to become a proper young lady.”
That was exactly what I hoped. And that was exactly why I was excited about going to Golden.