Quilts & Women Of The Mormon Migrations, by Mary Bywater Cross
I found this book very cleverly done. Admittedly, I do not think the market for a book like this one is a very large one, necessarily. For those who do find the women’s history or the history of quilts, or Mormon history to be of interest, though, this book offers a very nuanced and complex appreciation of the role of Mormon women in the establishment and success of the Mormon migration to Utah and surrounding areas from the middle of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th century. By providing a work that looks at the history of quilts, a rather quotidian but treasured aspect of family life, the author finds herself with an entrance into the role of women in Mormon life, which allows her to deal with the question of what life was like for women in migration to Utah and other Mormon settlements, what it was like to be part of complex polygamous families, and what is was like to continually be uprooted by the call to colonize and settle new lands for the benefit of the Mormon community as a whole. The author manages to handle both the material and the cultural history rather deftly.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and it is divided into four parts with a lot of supplementary material that is well worth checking out. The book begins with a preface and introduction that express the author’s interest in her topic and her explicitly gendered research focus. After that the author discusses the early efforts of the Mormons to find a place to worship in peace, which led them ultimately to Utah (1). This tale is told through the narratives of women who made quilts, which are also discussed at some length. Similarly, the combination of material culture and personal narratives informs the author’s discussion of the period between 1849 and 1855 where Mormons from around the world, especially the United Kingdom, were gathered into Utah, often through handcart companies for those who could not afford oxen and larger wagons (2). Growing tensions in Utah and in the United States as a whole led to efforts to welcome the faithful and encourage the settlement of areas outside of the original Mormon core (3), that eventually led to the larger settlement of the Intermountain West between 1870 and 1900 (4). After a conclusion there are four appendices that analyze the quilts (i), discuss the preservation of these treasures (ii), give a chronology of related Mormon history (iii), and show the pioneer emigration and migration company lists (iv), after which there are notes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.
One of the marked tendencies of this particular book and the author’s approach is to categorize the quilts as well as the period of Mormon settlement in a variety of ways. And while this categorization is undoubtedly helpful, it is intriguing to see the author’s desire to categorize in tension with her desire to tell stories as well, and the combination of these tendencies makes this book a fascinating and complex one. Narrative history and statistical history, both of which are in evidence here, do not always sit easily together, and the author to her credit does not seek to avoid the complexity of her instincts both to tell stories as well as to quantify and order and structure the material culture and people in which she is dealing with here. And in truth neither element of her approach, either her statistical interests in figuring out how many of the women who made quilts were part of monogamous families, and how many were part of plural marriages, or her narrative interests in telling the stories of the resourceful and able women who made and owned these quilts and whose lives are often full of repeated efforts to pioneer and explore and cope with the challenges of life, overwhelms the other. And that is for the best.