A week after Uncle Jacob's death, Abel Wright came to pay his respects. Dorothea Granger took him to the grave and stood some distance away while he bowed his head in silent prayer. The he look up and said, "I have something to tell you and your folks."
History is thick with secrets in The Sugar Camp Quilt, seventh in the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series from best selling author Jennifer Chiaverini. Set in Creek's Crossing, Pennsylvania, in the years leading up to the Civil War, the story begins with friends and neighbours taking sides in the abolitionist debate, and as events unfold, an extraordinary young heroine passes from innocence to wisdom against the harrowing backdrop of the American struggle over slavery.
A dutiful daughter and niece, Dorothea Granger finds her dreams of furthering her education thwarted by the needs of home. A gifted quilter, she tragically loses her hope chest in a flood. A superior student, she is promoted from pupil to teacher - only to lose her position to the privileged son of a town benefactor. But the ultimate test of her courage and convictions comes with the death of her stern uncle Jacob, who inexplicably had asked Dorothea to stitch him a quilt with four unusual patterns of his own design. After he meets with a violent end, Dorothea discovers that the quilt contains hidden clues to guide runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. Emboldened by the revelations about her uncle's bravery, Dorothea resolves to continue his dangerous work. Armed with the Sugar Camp Quilt and its mysterious symbols, she must evade slave catchers and outwit unscrupulous neighbours, embarking upon a heroic journey that allows her to discover her own courage and resourcefulness - unsuspected qualities that may win her the heart of the best man she has ever known.
Told with Jennifer Chiaverini's trademark historical suspense, The Sugar Camp Quilt blends danger, moral courage, romance, and hope into a novel of antebellum America whose lessons resonate with timeless honesty.
In previous posts about this series I have talked about how the author switches between modern and historical settings and this time it is a return to the past. Previous books set in the past including focus on the late 1800's and early 1900s, this time the book is set further back, in the days before the American Civil War. In fact, we originally met the main character Dorothea and her brother in The Runaway Quilt.
Dorothea Granger has been the young school teacher in the town of Cross Creek, but the town has recently appointed a new teacher, the son of a town patron, not because they were unhappy with her, but because of who his father was! With no teaching to be done, that means that she is restricted to working on the farm of her stern Uncle Jacob. Jacob has always been distant towards them, but the Granger family are determined to live and work on the farm in the hope that one day their son Jonathan will be the sole heir to the farm, after their own farm was lost in a flood some years earlier.
When Jacob asks Dorothea to make a quilt for him, Dorothea feels obliged to do so, but she doesn't understand why her uncle wants the specific patterns that he does, to the extend of making her unpick the stitching when she makes some "improvements". It is only once her uncle dies in violent circumstances that some of the truth comes out about him, and his involvement in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape through to the relative safety of Canada.
It is dangerous being involved in this activity, as there are many in the town of Cross Creek who are actively against freeing the slaves, and who are willing to assist the slave catchers in their work. It is therefore essential that Dorothea and her family know who they can and they can't trust - something that is not always easy in the best of times, let alone during such turbulent times.
The one thing that I would say is that in some ways, it felt as though the author was determined that Dorothea would end up with a happily ever after, regardless of how that really fitted into the story or not. Whilst initially there was intense dislike between Dorothea and her man, and there was some focus on them slowly becoming friends, it didn't feel to me as though there was a connection strong enough between them for the sudden declaration of love when it came. Maybe that was just my romance loving self being a bit too critical. I don't know how someone else who didn't normally read in that genre would find the build up to the relationship.
Despite what I have said about the author switching settings and times, in some ways this book is an anomaly within the series in my opinion. There is no reference to Elm Creek mansion, or to the modern days characters (or their forefathers ) at all. Where the other books were set in the past, we were connected to the current time because the events of the past were being revealed through letters or diaries. This book starts in the past and stays there. In fact the only link really that this book has to the rest of the series is the fact that the setting is the time of Cross Creek, and there is talk of quilting in it! Oh, and the fact that Dorothea's brother was a fairly main character in The Runaway Quilt.
The other books in this series, in order, are:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross Country Quilters
4. The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
6. The Master Quilter