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Movie Review - How to Make an American Quilt with Winona Ryder (1995)

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There are so many A-List stars in this film.  Some have aged a bit, some have been made to look aged, but they still have that spark which draws in their viewers, and it is obvious that they are enjoying their time on the set making this film.  However, it is difficult at times to keep straight who is who and which story belongs to which woman.  “How to Make an American Quilt” is an adaptation of the book of the same name, written by Whitney Otto in 1991.


Winona Ryder

                                                           Winona Ryder - Wikimedia


Finn (Winona Ryder) is a 26-year-old graduate student working on her Master’s thesis at Berkeley.  She and her fiancé Sam (Dermot Mulroney) are planning to be married.  Finn is not sure if she wants to make a lifelong commitment just now, so she decided to return to her grandmother’s house for the summer to think things over.  Sam is unaware of her hesitation.

Sam drove Finn to her grandmother’s house and plans to do construction work on their house while Finn is away.  Finn had wanted a separate room as her study but it was not part of Sam’s specs on the house, so they argued about that.  Sam had said that the extra room would be another bedroom or the baby’s room, not a study.  When Finn objected, Sam understood her to mean that she wasn’t planning on children, and he drove away after an unexpected argument.



                                                                    A Quilt - Wikimedia

The Quilting Bee

Finn’s grandmother, called Hy (Ellen Burstyn), and her great-aunt Glady Joe (Anne Bancroft) are sisters who live in a lovely old home in California.  They have hosted a Quilting Bee as long as Finn can remember.  Finn’s mother Sophia and her father Preston are divorced, and Finn spent her summers at her grandmother’s house when she was a young girl.

To Finn’s surprise, the ladies of the Quilting Bee are currently working on a quilt which will be a wedding present for Finn.  Each quilt has a theme and the theme of the present quilt is “where love resides.”  The members make their separate patches a reflection of their own love stories, weaving into the quilt their own memories.  As they quilt, they remember stories from their younger years and share them with Finn.


Dermot Mulroney

                                                        Dermot Mulroney - Wikimedia

Sophia’s Story

As a result, much of the story is told in flashback with Finn as the narrator.  Finn’s mother Sophia (Lois Smith) was a talented swimmer and spent a great deal of time at the nearby swimming hole.  A college boy, Preston, noticed Sophia at the local pool and was intrigued by her.  She took him to the swimming hole and showed off her diving expertise.  Preston said he was a geology major and was impressed with the rocks around the swimming hole.  At one point, it appeared that she wasn’t going to come up, so Preston dived in after her.  She was fine.  He kissed her, wet clothes and all.  They were married when Sophia became pregnant.  Sophia became disenchanted with married life when Preston spent so much time away from home.  One day he did not return home, and he and Sophia were divorced.  Sophia had several boyfriends after that, which was the reason Finn spent so much time at her grandmother’s house.


Maya Angelou

                                                                      Maya Angelou                                                                                                                                                       Wikimedia                                                                                  

Anna’s Story

Anna (Maya Angelou) is the master quilter.  When she was a young servant girl, she was very beautiful, and her boss’s son (Jared Leto) started an affair with her.  She became pregnant and her great aunt sent her away.  She gave Anna the family quilt belonging to Anna’s great grandmother which held a story, and which she had previously sold to her boss’s wife.  Anna met Glady Joe when she was taken in by her family when Anna was pregnant.  Glady Joe gave her the book “Wuthering Heights” to read while she waited for the birth of her baby.  When her baby was born she named her Marianna (Alfre Woodard), and Marianna was a member of the Quilting Bee also.

Anna showed her family quilt to Finn and related the story of her great grandmother, who was one of the first slaves who was freed after the Emancipation Proclamation.  She went looking for her parents who were former slaves.  As she walked, a raven led her to the man God intended her to marry. 

Finn said “Anna used to work for my grandmother, but now it seems that they all work for her.”


Anne Bancroft

                                                           Anne Bancroft - Wikimedia

Em’s Story

Em (Jean Simmons) is still a beautiful woman.  She married quite young, despite the fact that her husband Dean, an artist (Derrick O'Connor), is a womanizer who claims that he cannot help chasing after women.  She left him when she was pregnant after learning that he was having another affair.  In recent weeks, she had her suspicions that another quilter, Constance, was carrying on with Dean, which caused tension as they quilted.  Em finally decided that it was time to walk away from Dean.  It wasn’t until many years later that she realized that, in his own way, Dean loved her.  In a wind storm, she went for cover to his studio only to discover numerous paintings of her that she had never been aware of.

Constance’s Story

Constance was a newer member of the Quilting Bee.  She was happily married to Howell who passed away leaving her a young widow.  She knows that the rumor has spread that she was having an affair with Dean.  Anna explained to her that her patch for Finn’s quilt did not seem to be in harmony with the rest of the pattern.  She had sewn a panel which depicted a yellow rose bush where she and Howell had buried their beloved dog.  The ladies indicated that they no longer wanted her in the group, and she left, satisfied that she no longer needed them.


Ellen Burstyn

                                                         Ellyn Burstyn - Wikimedia                                                               

Hy’s Story

Hy loved her husband very much.  When he was dying in the hospital, she needed someone to pick her up. Her sister Glady Joe’s husband Arthur (Rip Torn) drove her back and forth and they ended up having an affair.  Glady Joe smelled Hy’s perfume on Arthur and went on a throwing rage, breaking every dish in the house.  Glady Joe never forgave her husband and reluctantly forgave her sister Hy.

Finn Meets a New Swain

Finn met a handsome boy at the beach named Leon.  He was quite taken with Finn and stopped by to bring her some strawberries.  He started coming around and Finn had to tell him that she was engaged to be married.  He surprised her in the garden one day and they made love under the trees. 

Sophie told her daughter Finn that she and her father were planning to be married after all those years.  Finn was surprised.  She confided to her mother that she was unsure about getting married to Sam.

In the windstorm, somehow hundreds of pages of Finn’s thesis were blown all over the year.  Glady Joe and Hy tried to help her gather them up, but not all of them could be retrieved.  Finn resolutely decided that she would start over, for the third time, on a new topic.


Jean Simmons

                                                                Jean Simmons - Wikimedia

A Crow Leads Finn Down the Path

Wrapped in her quilt, Finn took a walk in the garden.  Suddenly a crow showed up and led her in another direction, reminding her of Anna’s tale about her great grandmother.

How did this story end?  You will have to see the film.  You will not find the answer here.



How to Make an American Quilt - A Novel
Amazon Price: $8.95 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 17, 2016)


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