Please tell me you have heard about the Hatfields and McCoys. When I learned that my daughter didn’t know about the feuding families, I just had to pick up The Coffin Quilt (Harcourt 1999) while we traveled through West Virginia on vacation. I knew it would be good because it is written by Ann Rinaldi. She has such of gift of telling a story that makes me feel like I’m living through the events in history.
Fanny McCoy lives at the center of the swirling violence and hatred between her family and the Hatfields. It all starts with an argument over a pig. Tensions simmer until Fanny’s older sister Roseanna runs off with the good-looking Johnse Hatfield. Then the violence explodes with killings and kidnappings until no one will listen to reason. Heartbroken over the senseless deaths, Fanny has to choose whether to place family loyalty above all or to find her own way out of the hatred.
I loved Fanny McCoy. She adores her older sister Roseanna, who protects her from the spitefulness of her other older sisters, but she is appalled at Roseanna’s choices that lead to so much death. Fanny is not perfect, either. Sometimes she keeps quiet when she should have spoken up. Sometimes she is petty and vindictive herself. But through the whole story, her voice haunts me as she tries to make sense of the endless retaliations between the families. Her voice is as haunting as the imagery of the “yeller thing” that haunts Fanny before every death. The image of the “coffin quilt” also haunts the pages of this story. Roseaanna begins working on the coffin quilt when she runs off with Johnse. The quilt is lined with coffins around the edge. Each coffin has a name of a family member in it. When the person dies, their coffin is moved from the edge to the center. For Roseanna, the quilt becomes a symbol of the family she tore apart and the loved ones who died. Fanny remains horrified by the coffins and considers it yet one more omen of death.
As always, I enjoyed the author’s note in the back where Rinaldi explains fact from fiction. The events–even the most extreme violence–are fact. Most of the characters are historical as well. What Rinaldi adds is the feelings of the characters that explore their motivations. The combination is a powerful story that I just thought I knew something about.