“A yellow tulip is like sunshine,” Alice tells her mother-in-law. “Yellow is for joy and gladness and friendship.” Mother Bullock has come to depend on Alice now that her son Charlie has gone to fight for the Union.
The epistolary form gives the novel a sense of discovery, of the chatty intimacy that is only possible between sisters. Written in first person, in tight focus, Alice’s letters to sister Lizzie sparkle with personality. She is Iowa’s answer to Scarlett O’Hara: lively, flirtatious and vain.
Alice’s Tulips has a contemporary immediacy. Women’s concerns — survival and love — haven’t changed. The theme is war, country life and the human condition. The recurring motif of quilting serves as metaphor for the piecing together of Alice’s life. She takes in those less fortunate, Annie and her daughter, Joybell, and is rewarded for her generous spirit. She befriends the suspected Southern sympathizer, Nealie, and her husband, Frank. She conflicts with Frank’s brother, Sam, a Jayhawker who raids the farms for booty. Alice serves as the mainstay of her extended family. Her main conflict is woman vs. nature.
Combined with the tale of endurance is the mystery of who killed Sam. Alice had a motive; so did others. She shoulders the blame along with her other burdens. As hard-headed Mother Bullock gets to know Alice, she grows to love her, and so does the reader, who didn’t want this book to end.