May 20, 2009: Catskill crafts were author's focus


To The Editor:
I always enjoy Bill Birns’ “A Catskill Catalog” but sometimes they strike a special interest of mine. His column last week reminded me that Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote her only nonfiction book about crafts in the Catskills, entitled Catskill Crafts: Artisans of the Catskill Mountains. She called the book a “friendship quilt” of a wide variety of hand-made crafts, which are made one at a time by local craftsmen and women.
Jane Smiley bought a house in Fleischmanns and lived there while writing this book, which was published in 1988. She “joined” the Arkville Catskill Mountain Quilters and spent several months working on a couple of quilts. When I asked my sister if she remembered Jane, she said that this young woman introduced herself as a “writer, or something.” Just, incidentally, one of the quilts she worked on was my sister’s “Friendship Quilt,” and the first piece of a quilt Jane Smiley ever made was a patch with her signature on it for my sister’s quilt. The club was also making a quilt to auction off for a special cause, and Jane had done some work on that too.
I learned much of this from Jane when she came to Rochester for a book signing. Of course there were hundreds of people in line to get her to sign the Pulitzer Prize winning, A Thousand Acres, and other of her books of fiction.
I stood in line with Catskill Crafts in my hand, which I took there for her to sign as a gift to my sister. I was quite a distance from Jane when one of the people in line spotted my book and asked me about it. As I explained that it had a chapter in which Jane had written about a quilting group in which my sister was a member. I didn’t think much about what I had said, but I noticed that the line speeded-up considerably. When it was my turn Jane looked at the book and said, “Who is your sister?” When I told her she said that she remembered that Arlene was the treasurer of the group and that when Jane had invited the club to lunch the year after she had worked with them, Arlene had with her a letter she had just written to the highest bidder on the auction quilt. Jane told me that she had asked the ladies what the highest bid was and said that she would have bid more. I didn’t dare ask either Jane or Arlene if she was allowed to make a bid at that time.
Jane Smiley is an interesting person. She was born in Los Angeles but moved to St. Louis as a child where she went through school with another Catskill Mountain connection, the John Burroughs School. Jane is a Vassar graduate and has been a prolific author. She wrote in the book for my sister, “Hello to my friends in Catskill Mountain Quilters.”

Robert A. Rowe,