The Thread Col­lec­tors: A Novel

By – August 29, 2022

Do wars and oth­er armed con­flicts feel dif­fer­ent to peo­ple of diverse back­grounds and racial groups? Have the expe­ri­ences of some been over­looked in the tragedies of the times, while those of oth­ers are vivid­ly por­trayed in lit­er­a­ture and art? Can events in one part of his­to­ry col­or the world­view of sur­vivors and their descen­dants for generations?

These are some of the crit­i­cal issues explored by Shaunna Edwards and Alyson Rich­man in The Thread Col­lec­tors, a sen­si­tive new nov­el about a group of men and women, both Black and white, free and enslaved, caught in the Civ­il War and forced to adapt to the depri­va­tions and hor­rors of the bloody con­fla­gra­tion. They strug­gle to find their strength, sharp­en their wits, and devel­op their talents.

The nov­el fol­lows many diverse peo­ple who are unlike­ly to have met in peace­time. Enslaved and free peo­ple mix with North­ern­ers and South­ern­ers; civil­ians inter­act with mil­i­tary per­son­nel; slave own­ers wran­gle with abo­li­tion­ists; white Jews forge bonds with Black sol­diers. The result­ing rela­tion­ships are some­times explo­sive, but always intense and provocative.

Although this is a work of fic­tion, many of the char­ac­ters are actu­al­ly inspired by the authors’ fam­i­ly his­to­ries. Edwards mod­eled the char­ac­ter of Stel­la, a mul­tira­cial enslaved per­son, after the life of her dis­tant aunt. Richman’s ances­tors include two Jew­ish broth­ers who fought on oppo­site sides of the war, just like Jacob and Samuel in the nov­el. The authors’ empha­sis on these two groups of tra­di­tion­al out­siders — Jews and Blacks — fuels the sto­ry with a wel­come degree of per­son­al resonance.

Over­all, near­ly three mil­lion sol­diers fought in the Civ­il War, about ten per­cent of them Black men who had enlist­ed in the Union Army. Of the tiny pop­u­la­tion of Jews in the US at the time, sev­er­al thou­sand Jew­ish men fought in the war, most of them recent immi­grants from Ger­many and Hun­gary. They had come to the US seek­ing free­dom and safe­ty but were instead greet­ed with prej­u­dice and anti­semitism. In Louisiana, where the sto­ry unfolds, Jews and free men of col­or bat­tle side by side with the fugi­tive enslaved men who have joined the North­ern forces in the hopes of attain­ing a life of dig­ni­ty and independence.

Sur­viv­ing the war to claim this pre­cious free­dom is a key dri­ver in the book. One of the Black men, William, a run­away enslaved per­son, has a spe­cial knack for music that he is will­ing to exchange for a bet­ter chance at suc­cess. Through his ethe­re­al flute-play­ing, he con­nects with Jacob, a white Jew­ish musi­cian from New York City. The bond they forge through the songs they exchange brings each man new strength.

Back on the plan­ta­tion, William’s beloved, Stel­la, sur­vives by stitch­ing bits of thread into cloth to clan­des­tine­ly cre­ate maps for enslaved peo­ple look­ing to escape. Mean­while, in New York, Jacob’s wife, Lily, uses the thread and cloth she finds to make quilts for the sol­diers to keep them warm and remind them of home.

Through deft writ­ing and empath­ic char­ac­ters, Edwards and Rich­man touch on many themes: the strength of women to over­come adver­si­ty, the sac­ri­fices of moth­er­hood, the abil­i­ty of shared pas­sions to con­nect strangers, the inge­nu­ity that bridges divi­sions, and, ulti­mate­ly, the ideas peo­ple dream up to restore pow­er to the powerless.

This is a first nov­el for Edwards, a trained cor­po­rate lawyer, and the eighth for Rich­man, an inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized author of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. All at once, their seam­less col­lab­o­ra­tion illu­mi­nates unique truths from both Black tra­di­tion and white Jew­ish her­itage and under­pins the com­mon­al­i­ty of the human condition.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of HarperCollins

  1. We typ­i­cal­ly think of sewing as an activ­i­ty that repairs dam­aged cloth or in the case of embroi­dery, beau­ti­fies it. What does sewing mean for Stel­la? How is it dif­fer­ent for Lily?

  2. The authors have cap­i­tal­ized both Black and White in the nov­el. Did you notice this? Did you ever pon­der why White is not tra­di­tion­al­ly cap­i­tal­ized, but Black is? How has this change affect­ed how you per­ceive descrip­tions of race in the writ­ten word?

  3. William’s musi­cal skills allow him more free­dom than oth­er enslaved men, which even­tu­al­ly leads to his rela­tion­ship with Stel­la and his escape. How­ev­er, his unique­ness does not shield him from the hor­rors that befall the Black sol­diers at Port Hud­son. For mem­bers of mar­gin­al­ized groups, what impact does indi­vid­ual tal­ent have (or not have) in improv­ing one’s circumstances?

  4. Jacob and William find them­selves forg­ing a strong friend­ship against the back­drop of war, despite com­ing from com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent back­grounds. What do you think draws them togeth­er? How does music and out­sider­ship play into this nov­el? Is there an unusu­al friend­ship that you have forged?

  5. What sur­prised you the most read­ing The Thread Col­lec­tors? Were you aware of some of the his­tor­i­cal events? For exam­ple, the Louisiana Guards’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Bat­tle in Port Hud­son or the burn­ing of the Col­ored Orphan Asy­lum in New York City?

  6. At Port Hud­son, the Black sol­diers sing Amaz­ing Grace,” a hymn orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten by John New­ton, an 18th cen­tu­ry slave trad­er. While he under­went a spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sion, he con­tin­ued in the slave trade for some time. Can you sep­a­rate the present beau­ty of art from the past sins of the artist? Can you think of mod­ern exam­ples of this dilemma?

  7. The sis­ter­hood between Stel­la and Amma­nee plays an impor­tant role in the nov­el. How does the unequal nature of the sis­ters’ cir­cum­stances affect their rela­tion­ship? How does the rela­tion­ship change over the course of the story?

  8. Tilly, Janie and Stel­la all make sac­ri­fices in the name of moth­er­hood. Were you sur­prised by any of their choices?

  9. Love is com­mu­ni­cat­ed in many ways in this nov­el — hum­ming by Tilly, sewing by Stel­la, quilt­ing and writ­ing by Lily. Are some ways more effec­tive than oth­ers? How do you com­mu­ni­cate love?