The Thread Col­lec­tors: A Novel

September 1, 2021

Inspired by the authors’ own fam­i­ly his­to­ries, The Thread Col­lec­tors is a rich his­tor­i­cal nov­el set dur­ing the Civ­il War about two women — one Black and yearn­ing for free­dom in New Orleans, the oth­er a Jew­ish abo­li­tion­ist in New York — whose resource­ful sewing to sup­port their com­mu­ni­ties leads them on unex­pect­ed, dan­ger­ous jour­neys as they fight to bring their beloveds home from the front. As the two women risk every­thing for love and free­dom dur­ing a bru­tal Civ­il War, their paths con­verge in New Orleans, where an unex­pect­ed encounter leads them to dis­cov­er that even the most del­i­cate threads have the capac­i­ty to save us. Truth in fic­tion: Alyson’s great-great-great uncle, a Ger­man Jew, was a musi­cian in the Union army, where­as his broth­er fought for the oth­er side, allow­ing the nov­el in part to explore what hap­pens when fam­i­ly mem­bers hold oppos­ing views on some­thing as hor­rif­ic as slav­ery, espe­cial­ly when that fam­i­ly is a minor­i­ty in a new coun­try. The char­ac­ter of Stel­la is par­tial­ly inspired by Shaunna’s great-great-great Aunt Janie, a woman of Black and White parent­age who man­aged to become a finan­cial­ly inde­pen­dent landown­er while her rel­a­tives strug­gled to find eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty. Shaunna’s fam­i­ly came to own a sug­ar­cane farm carved out of a plan­ta­tion that she and her sib­lings still own to this day.

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?