The Thread Collectors

Written by Alyson Richman
Review by Valerie Adolph

Focused mostly on New Orleans in 1863 and 1864, this novel follows the lives of people of color during the Civil War. William, a talented musician, is fleeing from the city and enslavement to undertake the dangerous trek to join the Union army, leaving behind his soulmate, Stella.

At Camp Parapet, William meets Private Jacob Kling, a Jewish musician from New York who has left behind his soulmate, Lily. The two men play music together, first for their own pleasure, then to raise the morale of all the soldiers in the camps. Meanwhile, Stella is pulling threads from colored fabric to create maps showing slaves from the South the safest routes to join the Union army. Lily is sending sheet music to Jacob so he can play the latest tunes to the fighting men. Foraging away from camp at Christmas, Jacob is badly wounded. William, seeking help for him, returns to Stella, where he finds his newborn son. Lily, meanwhile, has travelled south searching for Jacob in all the Union military hospitals.

The authors have penned an engrossing story, and they use it to expose many of the cruelties experienced by enslaved people, prejudice against Jewish people, military incompetence, and the devastation of the land by both armies. This they accomplish with grace and nuance, educating as they entertain. They document also the horrors of war—the stacks of amputated limbs, the unburied dead—but within a context of time, place, and story.

This novel pulls the heartstrings of love and loss, terrors and joys. The cold facts underpin the very human emotions as people of color move from their overt exploitation by slave owners to the more veiled exploitation by the army that has come to save them.

Not an easy read, but a valuable one.