Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Runaway Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

The fourth book in the popular Elm Creek Quilts series explores a question that has long captured the imagination of quilters and historians alike: Did stationmasters of the Underground Railroad use quilts to signal to fugitive slaves?

In her first novel, The Quilter's Apprentice, Jennifer Chiaverini wove quilting lore with tales from the World War II home front. Now, following Round Robin and The Cross Country Quilters, Chiaverini revisits the legends of Elm Creek Manor, as Sylvia Compson discovers evidence of her ancestors' courageous involvement in the Underground Railroad.

Alerted to the possibility that her family had ties to the slaveholding South, Sylvia scours her attic and finds three quilts and a memoir written by Gerda, the spinster sister of clan patriarch Hans Bergstrom. The memoir describes the founding of Elm Creek Manor and how, using quilts as markers, Hans, his wife, Anneke, and Gerda came to beckon fugitive slaves to safety within its walls. When a runaway named Joanna arrives from a South Carolina plantation pregnant with her master's child, the Bergstroms shelter her through a long, dangerous winter, imagining neither the impact of her presence nor the betrayal that awaits them.

The memoir raises new questions for every one it answers, leading Sylvia ever deeper into the tangle of the Bergstrom legacy. Aided by the Elm Creek Quilters, as well as by descendants of others named in Gerda's tale, Sylvia dares to face the demons of her family's past and at the same time reaffirm her own moral center. A spellbinding fugue on the mysteries of heritage, The Runaway Quilt unfolds with all the drama and suspense of a classic in the making.

This is the book that made me want to start reading this whole series, and whilst I wasn't really sure what to expect it was still a very good read.

I really admire the fact that the author was able to completely change the focus of this book and yet it still very firmly feels like part of the series. The previous three books in the series havefocusedd on a group of women and their lives as they come together and makes friends. In this book, Sylvia meets a lady who has an old quilt that they have been calling the Elm Creek Quilt which prompts the ladies to ask whether they are maybe connected. When Sylvia decides to look through all the contents of the attic, she finds a chest that contains several more quilts, and more importantly her great-great aunt Gerda's diary.

As Sylvia reads through the journal, she finds that things that she believed about her family's past were not necessarily as true, or at least as clear cut as they appeared to have been. The journal also helps Sylvia focus on her life and her relationships in her current life.

For me, the most interesting parts of this book were the parts that related to the participation of the Sylvia's forefathers in the Underground Railway, providing shelter to escaped slaves prior to, and during the Civil War. The book also covers how difficult it was during that time as there were people from the same town who took different sides of the abolitionist debates, pitting employee against employer.

For me it will be interesting to see what directions the author goes in in future. Will she continuing looking back in the past, will she refocus back on groups of women and their trials and tribulation. Either way, I hope that the series continues to go from strength to strength.

Rating 4.5/5


  1. You're right that this series is pretty unique in that it hops back and forth in time periods and characters, but still manages to feel like a cohesive series. I don't know how she manages that!

  2. Ok. I'm really behind in commenting but I've had this tagged to come back and comment on all week.

    Thanks for blogging about these. I'm going to add the series to my list of books to read!

    OH! That reminds me that I have to put that file back on my computer. I took it off when some stuff was going funky earlier this week.