Wanda E. Brunstetter, Jean Brunstetter, and Richelle Brunstetter’s THE BELOVED CHRISTMAS QUILT and Imbuing an Object With Meaning
Three generations of an Amish family. One precious quilt.
The conceit is simple. Wanda E. Brunstetter is one of the reigning queens of the Amish genre. She wrote the first novella in this book. Then her daughter wrote the next. Her granddaughter wrote the third. Isn’t that a fun idea? It’s certainly one that is appropriate for the Holiday season.
The novellas in the book are held together by a logical structure. An Amish woman named Dena is very ill and gives the quilt to Luella, the young woman who has been caring for her while her husband works. After a respectful period of time, Luella and Atlee court and create Karen, who finds the quilt comforting during difficulties with her husband. Karen then passes the quilt down to daughter Roseanna, who needs strength to decide what to do when her betrothed beloved disappears before the wedding.
The three Brunstetter women offer us some great advice for writing an interesting book: unite with two other generations of your family to write a book consisting of three connected novellas.
Unfortunately, this is not an option for most of us. There is, however, plenty of other lessons that we can learn from the work of the three Brunstetters. I love the idea of building meaning into an important object and using it to underscore the entire story. The quilt itself isn’t very valuable or meaningful on its own. It’s really only a few dollars’ worth of fabric scraps and thread. In the book, however, the quilt is witness to three generations of love and loss. I like this conceit because an object can be timeless; people are not. There’s comfort in knowing that an object may live on, taking a piece of us into the future in a way that is fictional but emotionally comforting in a way.
Of course, this technique has been used before. Think about Star Wars. C-3PO and R2-D2 are witnesses to the fall of the Galactic Empire, from the time Anakin Skywalker learns his destiny, to the time Darth Vader defeats the Emperor (and beyond). What about Rosebud, the famous sled from Citizen Kane? It’s really only a bunch of pieces of wood and steel, but the sled represents a lot about Charles Foster Kane.
The beloved Christmas quilt in The Beloved Christmas Quilt is what we call a MacGuffin: an object or device that kicks off the plot, but doesn’t really matter in the end. (The quilt is a nice object to have, but the people in the story and their relationships are more important, no?) One of the standard examples of the MacGuffin are the 39 steps in The 39 Steps. If you haven’t seen the film, you should. Hitchcock adapted a John Buchan novel in which a man is pursued by bad guys because they think that he has important information. The information itself doesn’t matter; we’re focused on how the protagonist deals with his situation.
Writing dialogue is always a struggle. It’s hard to transform thoughts and sounds into words, isn’t it? On one hand, you have an obligation to provide the reader with words and sentences that are easy to understand. On the other hand, we have to make our characters sound the way people actually speak. To some extent, we treat our characters as actors; I call this “dialogue coaching.”
Here’s a snippet from the youngest Brunstetter’s novella:
See how Ms. Brunstetter coaches the characters in their line readings?
- The ellipses force us to hear a pause in the line that can add emphasis, indicate reluctance, or communicate any number of emotions.
- Roseanna stops talking and Ms. Brunstetter literally describes what the character’s throat is doing.
- John restarts the word he is saying, indicating emotion of his own.
How much of this is too much? (And how little is too little?) There’s no right or easy answer, of course. That’s a decision you must make. A good rule of thumb is to “break the rules” as little as possible and only in crucial situations, when the deviation from the norm will have the greatest effect.
This three-novella book is a celebration of family and of love. It is interesting to compare how three generations of women think about life and family. Each situation is compelling on its own, but the novellas combine in an interesting way to serve as a fitting Christmastime diversion. Perhaps the book is best read beside a fireplace as the reader’s own children and grandchildren run about.
The book also reinforces what makes the eldest Brunstetter one of the top names in the Amish field. The characters of The Beloved Christmas Quilt face situations that may seem unfamiliar to readers, but are also quite familiar. What do you do when you’re not sure if the person you love feels the same way about you? How can you learn to love again after suffering a great loss? The Brunstetters’ characters teach us and entertain us in equal measure.