Local poet launches first novel

Published 10:33 pm Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fifty or more guests gathered at North Shelby Library Jan. 10 for a book launching party. Inspiration for Inverness resident Irene Latham’s “Leaving Gees Bend” includes Mary Ann and China Pettway, who were busily signing books.

Mary Ann Pettway, manager of the Gees Bend collective, told guests she once quilted by lamplight.

Quilts kept out cold air when hung along walls, and over windows of their drafty home.

“I am blessed,” she said. “I don’t feel sorry for myself. The Lord has brought me a long way.”

Then the Pettway sisters’ strong voices rose in song. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” brought many to tears. “I love you all,” said China.

A dessert and drink table stood ready, laden with lemonade and cake.

Another table held stacks of Latham’s tale of a child in Gees Bend. Among the crowd were mid-grade girls, about the age of the book’s main character, Ludelphia Bennett.

This is the first novel for Latham, who has published many poems. She explained how the book developed.

“My husband and I were in New York, and saw the Quilts of Gees Bend exhibit at the Whitney Museum. I was moved to tears when hearing the women singing, and read the history, so I wrote a set of poems,” Latham said.

The poems evolved into her work of fiction, “Leaving Gees Bend.”

Latham read a short portion to guests, ending with Ludelphia saying, “I may have only one eye that works, but I tell you that eye works real good.”

In the novel, the year is 1932. There were no doctors in Gees Bend, and Ludelphia’s mother is sick. Ludelphia needs to get help, but GeesBend is cut off from civilization by a dangerous river.

“I didn’t have time to be scared,” says Ludelphia, about running into trouble on that dreadful river.

Latham’s research for the novel took her to Camden Library, and archived newspapers of Wilcox County.

She visited Gees Bend, and followed China and Mary Ann Pettway on their quilt tours.

She walked the red dirt roads, and rode the ferry. The result is a story so real that one guest pronounced it delicious. Latham plans a sequel.

Latham’s book was published by G.P. Putnam, and can be found at local bookstores. See IreneLatham.com, where Latham tells more about her heart touching adventures of Ludelphia.

More information on the Gees Bend Quilters is found at QuiltsOfGeesBend.com.

Gladys Hodge Sherrer can be reached by e–mail at gsherrer@hotmail.com.