The Thread Collectors – by Alyson Richman and Shaunna J. Edwards – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States)

In this historical novel, Alyson Richman (a favorite author of mine) and Shaunna J. Edwards  (this is her debut novel) team up to paint a portrait of the Civil War (1861-65) from what might be called cross perspectives; Black and white, North and South, rich and poor, slavery and freedom. As explained in the Authors’ Note, the authors collaborated as a way to “find beauty” in the darkness of the racial violence and inequality that surrounds American society. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

Drawing on their own decades-long friendship and their individual family histories (Richman is white and Jewish, Edwards is black and Christian), these two women have crafted a story of war, slavery, love, and friendship around four main characters:

  • Lily – the daughter of a wealthy, Jewish New York City merchant who is a dedicated abolitionist.
  • Jacob – her husband, a talented musician from a less prosperous Jewish family who fights in the Union Army.
  • Stella – a beautiful enslaved woman in Louisiana who is auctioned off to become the mistress of a rich white planter.
  • William – an enslaved man whose musical genius gets exploited by his master until he runs away to become one of the thousands of Black men who fought for the North.

How these four lives intersect I’ll leave for you to discover. But all four take great risks in their efforts to protect their loved ones.

The book paints quite a bleak picture of the conflict, that can be hard to read at some points. Split families, massive casualties, rudimentary medical care, widespread disease, and lack of adequate, even minimal supplies. And of course, prejudice against Black Americans deeply ingrained on both sides of the war.

The novel covers just a few years (beginning just before the Civil War begins) though the back stories of each character are woven in. I definitely found the first half of the book much less compelling than the second. Perhaps that was because so many backgrounds needed to be explained. But the book eventually picks up pace and becomes quite dramatic and powerful (even suspenseful) as it builds toward its conclusion.

I recommend THE THREAD COLLECTORS, especially because it’s the only book I’ve ever read about this time period that includes three less well-known aspects of the Civil War story:

  • That the Union Army treated Black soldiers MUCH differently than White soldiers, despite the fact that both were on the same side.
  • That Jewish soldiers fought, facing their own hurdles of discrimination.
  • The ways in which women contributed to the war effort.

You’ll learn a lot.

More about Alyson Richman.

More about Shaunna J. Edwards.

You may be interested in my reviews of other books by Richman:

The Secret of Clouds

The Rhythm of Memory

The Velvet Hours

A Splendid Gift

The Garden of Letters

The Lost Wife


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