This reading group guide for The Aloha Quilt includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Chiaverini. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The Aloha Quilt takes one of Jennifer Chiaverini’s beloved Elm Creek Quilters, Bonnie Markham, on an adventure in paradise, where the breeze is warm, the pineapple is fresh, and the quilting is rich in history and tradition.
After losing her quilt shop to bankruptcy and experiencing the heartache and betrayal of a broken marriage, Bonnie just wants her divorce to be final so she can put it all behind her. Unfortunately, her soon-to-be ex-husband, Craig, isn’t going to make that very easy. So the timing couldn’t be better when a dear friend invites Bonnie to Hawaii for the winter to help her launch a new quilting camp on the beautiful island of Maui. It’s just the escape Bonnie needs—from Craig, the divorce proceedings, and even the cold Pennsylvania winters. But after only a short time on the island, it becomes much more than an escape. Could this be someplace Bonnie could call home? Busy launching the Aloha Quilt camp, immersing herself in Hawaiian culture, developing new friendships and nurturing old ones, Bonnie’s wounds begin to heal as she comes to understand the true meaning of aloha.
Enhance Your Book Club
- Right from the start, Craig believes Bonnie is trying to turn their children against him. Bonnie knows this isn’t true, and that she must keep her children out of the divorce as much as possible, but at times it’s difficult not to explain the truth. How much do you think their children need to know? Do you think Bonnie is right not to let them pick sides when she’s been so clearly wronged?
- Bonnie wonders why Claire and Eric’s marriage survived when hers didn’t (p. 44). She doesn’t believe that she married a bad man, so the explanation must be more complicated than that. Can people change that much over time? Discuss the differences between these two marriages, and contemplate the reasons why one was able to overcome its hurdles and the other was not.
- Initially, Hinano seems to have a real dislike for tourists. Is he justified in his opinions because of his past? Are his own assumptions and judgments of mainlanders just as ignorant and prejudiced as he believes tourists to be?
- Discuss the Hawaiian tradition of not sharing patterns, explained by Midori on pages 67-68. Have you had any experience in sharing patterns? Do you agree or disagree with the idea behind this practice?
- Bonnie’s daughter wonders if Bonnie and Craig are ever going to be able to be in the same room together again. Bonnie reassures her by saying “After the divorce is final and the dust settles, I’m sure we’ll manage to be civil” (p. 42). Given the state of their relationship at the end of the book, do you think Bonnie is right?
- The relationship between Bonnie and Hinano gets off to a rocky start; they’re constantly in disagreement. How does that kind of relationship lead to love? In what ways do they open each other’s minds and help each other grow?
- Bonnie feels betrayed when the Elm Creek Quilters decide that she should sell her share of the business. Do you think she’s being overly sensitive? Why is she so upset when she knows in her heart it’s the only option?
- When Bonnie visits the Iolani Palace with Hinano, she is deeply moved by the story of Queen Lili’uokalani and her companion in confinement, Eveline Wilson. Marveling over Eveline’s courage and compassion, Bonnie wonders who she would be willing to give up her freedom for. Who would you be willing to make such a huge sacrifice for? Do you agree with Bonnie that it’s easy to offer what will never be required? (p. 222)
- When Claire reveals her secret to Bonnie, she tells her that the lying and guilt made her miserable every day of her affair. Since it was obviously more than a one-time thing, why do you think Claire carried on the affair as long as she did if it was making her so unhappy? Do you think cheating can be just as painful to the cheater as it is to the person who is cheated on?
- Discuss Bonnie’s reaction to Claire’s infidelity. Do you think she’s right to take it so personally when, as Eric and Midori both point out, Eric is the one who was betrayed, not her? Would she have reacted the same way had Claire told her at the time that it had actually happened? Why does she have such a hard time forgiving Claire?
- After Claire’s confession, Bonnie insists that their positions could never be reversed because Bonnie would never be unfaithful. Claire responds by saying, “Probably not . . . but nine years ago I would have insisted the same thing about myself” (p. 270). Why is it so hard sometimes to put ourselves in other people’s shoes? Do we ever really know what we’re capable of?
- As Bonnie acknowledges on the last page of the novel, she went to Hawaii “broken and dispirited but had returned whole.” As her Hawaiian quilt becomes more complete, so does she. Consider the symbolism of the Hawaiian quilt throughout the book. How is it similar to and different from quilts on the mainland?
Turn your book club into an island oasis. You may not be able to prepare kalua
pig in a traditional underground imu
, but you can certainly mix up some piña coladas or slice a delicious pineapple to help get you and your book club into a tropical mindset.
Queen Lili’uokalani’s quilt is a real historic treasure. See it and learn more about the history behind its creation in this feature article available online: http://archives.starbulletin.com/2003/03/10/features/story1.html.
Follow Midori’s instructions beginning on p. 80 and try making your own Hawaiian quilt pattern. Either dedicate some time for designing patterns during your book club meeting, or have each member create a special pattern for someone else in the group and exchange them at your next gathering.
Learn more about the history of Hawaiian quilting, the aloha spirit, and what makes a Hawaiian quilt Hawaiian at www.hawaiianquilting.net and www.quiltshawaiian.com.
A Conversation with Jennifer Chiaverini
As its title implies, your latest Elm Creek Quilts novel, THE ALOHA QUILT, takes place largely in Hawai’i. What circumstances takes the series there?
Another season of Elm Creek Quilt Camp has come to a close, and Bonnie Markham faces a bleak and lonely winter ahead with her quilt shop out-of-business and her divorce looming. A welcome escape comes when Claire, a beloved college friend, unexpectedly invites her to Maui to help launch an exciting new business: a quilter’s retreat set at a bed and breakfast amidst the vibrant colors and balmy breezes of the Hawai’ian islands. Soon Bonnie finds herself looking out on sparkling waters and banyan trees, helping to run Claire’s inn, planning quilting courses, and learning the history and intricacies of Hawai’ian quilting. THE ALOHA QUILT focuses on Bonnie, an Elm Creek Quilts founder who has undergone struggles in her personal life in recent books. Of all the Elm Creek Quilters, she probably deserves a Hawai’ian getaway more than anyone, but do the other Elm Creek Quilters also appear in the novel?
Many of the other Elm Creek Quilters, including reader favorites Sylvia and Sarah, also play important roles in the novel. The story begins and ends at Elm Creek Manor, and Bonnie keeps in touch with her friends throughout the winter months. Readers will also meet new characters, such as Claire, Bonnie’s former college roommate and the founder of Aloha Quilt Camp; Midori, the chef of the Hale Kapa Kuiki Inn and Bonnie’s Hawai’ian quilting mentor; and Hinano, Midori’s nephew, ukulele player, luthier, and Bonnie’s tutor in matters of Hawai’ian culture and folklore. In the novel, Bonnie learns about the uniquely Hawai’ian tradition of quilting. How does it differ from traditional quilting on the mainland?
Hawai’ian quilters do make quilts like those made on the mainland, often giving their quilts a delightful Hawai’ian flavor by sewing traditional patchwork blocks from batiks or other fabrics in the bright colors of the islands. The quilts Hawai’i is best known for, however, are the distinctive, intricate, large-scale, two-color appliqué designs inspired by the natural beauty and rich cultural traditions of Hawai’i. Instead of creating small blocks and sewing them together to create an overall design, a single appliqué is cut from a large piece of fabric folded into eighths, much like cutting out a paper snowflake. The fabric cutout is unfolded and carefully sewn to background fabric in a contrasting color to complete the top. The three layers—appliqué top, middle layer of batting, and solid backing—are sewn together with echo quilting, small, intricate quilting stitches that follow the contours of the appliqué in concentric lines a quarter of an inch apart. Other stitches outline details such as leaves, stems, and flower petals. Hawai’ian quilt designs reflect the people’s love for the natural beauty of their island home, their respect for their ancestors, and their desire to preserve their native heritage. Images of native plants and animals, traditional artifacts, and family crests often appear within the appliquéd patterns. How did quilting first come to Hawai’i?
For centuries before European explorers came to the islands, native Hawai’ians made a cloth called kapa
by soaking and pounding the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. They made bed coverings called kappa moe
by sewing together several layers of kapa
with large running stitches and decorating the tops with traditional patterns made from natural dyes. When Christian missionaries arrived in the early nineteenth century, they taught young Hawai’ian girls how to do patchwork as a part of their domestic training. Woven into the story are many facts about Hawai’i’s past and its former independence of which many non-Hawai’ian readers might not be aware, and one character—Hinano—is a committed activist. What are the circumstances surrounding the end of the Hawai’ian monarchy and why, for many, is it still controversial today?
As Hinano explains to Bonnie, in 1887, under the threat of deposition, King David Kalakaua was forced to sign a constitution that transformed the government into a constitutional monarchy and stripped citizens of Asian heritage and all but the most elite native Hawai’ians of their voting rights. Six years later, a coalition of politicians, planters, and businessmen with military support from the United States Marines and Navy overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani, who had assumed the throne after her brother’s death. Confronted with the threat of a vastly superior military force, Queen Lili’uokalani stepped aside under protest to prevent the loss of life, but she fully intended to regain her rightful place eventually, believing that the international community and President Grover Cleveland would support her. President Cleveland initially denounced the overthrow as an illegal act of war and worked with members of Queen Lili’uokalani’s government to restore her to the throne, but her political opponents in the Washington and in the newly formed Republic of Hawai’i simply waited out Cleveland’s second term, and under the more amenable President William McKinley, the Republic of Hawai’i was annexed as a territory of the United States. In 1959, Hawai’i became the 50th state, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed an official “Apology Resolution” that admitted the United States’ wrongdoing in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. Unfortunately, although the resolution acknowledged that the United States violated native Hawai’ians’ rights to self-determination, it didn’t propose any plan for restitution to the people whose nation had been taken away from them. Today, some people believe that Hawai’i isn’t a state at all, but a sovereign nation under prolonged occupation. Others believe that the Hawai’ian people ought to have the same rights to self-governance that many Native American tribes on the mainland possess. Still others note that people of all races were full partners in the Kingdom of Hawai’i before the demise of the monarchy, and in keeping with that tradition and the spirit of aloha, government assistance should be based upon need without regard to race, and that there should be no special land rights based upon native Hawai’ian ancestry. Obviously, this is a brief summary of a very complex issue, and in the novel, Hinano’s opinions on the subject are influenced by significant and tragic events in his past. You write about the Queen’s Quilt, made by Lili’uokalani, Hawai’i’s last queen. Did you know about this remarkable quilt before researching the novel? What were the circumstances of its creation?
I discovered the extraordinary Crazy Quilt known as the Queen’s Quilt on the last day of my first trip to Hawai’i during a tour of the Iolani Palace in Honolulu. Two years after Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown, a group of loyal supporters tried to restore her to power. When the attempt failed, Lili’uokalani was arrested and forced to sign a document relinquishing her claim to the throne forever. Soon thereafter, she was tried before a military tribunal in her own former throne room and convicted of knowing about the royalist plot. A heavy fine was levied against her, but a sentence of five years of hard labor was commuted to imprisonment in an upstairs room of her palace. Lili’uokalani was permitted a single companion during her imprisonment, a devoted friend named Eveline Wilson. To help pass the long months, the two women made an elaborate crazy quilt, a popular style at the time, with irregularly shaped pieces of fabric sewn together in apparently random arrangements and heavily embellished with embroidery. Stitched into the quilt is a record of the queen’s reign, overthrow, and imprisonment, as well as the names of many of her friends and loyal supporters. Symbols of the Kingdom of Hawai’i such as the Hawai’ian flag and the Hawai’ian coat of arms also appear throughout the quilt. The Queen’s Quilt is a priceless treasure of art and history. You also write about Hawai’ian flag quilts. What are those?
Hawai’ian flag quilts used traditional piecing and appliqué methods to recreate the flag of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, which had a Union Jack in the canton in honor of Hawai’i’s historical relationship as a protectorate of Great Britain and a field of eight red, white, and blue stripes to represent the eight Hawai’ian islands. Hawai’ian flag quilts also often included images such as the royal family’s coat of arms or patriotic phrases such as “Ku’u Hae Aloha
,” which translates to “My Beloved Flag,” or “Ua mau ke ea o ka’aina i ka pono
,” which means “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” This famous declaration of King Kamehameha III was the motto of the Kingdom of Hawai’i and is now the state motto. Hawai’ian flag quilts began appearing in 1893 after the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani. The Hawai’ian people were not permitted to fly the flag of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, so Hawai’ian flag quilts became a form of protest—and also a way for the people to commemorate their beloved queen and mourn the loss of their sovereignty. Bonnie’s Hawai’ian stay coincides with some major holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. What singularly Hawai’ian holiday traditions do you introduce readers to?
During her stay on Maui, Bonnie discovers how island residents celebrate traditional American holidays in a Hawai’ian style, such as a big family luau for Thanksgiving instead of the traditional turkey dinner. With Hinano’s guidance, she also learns about ancient Hawai’ian festivals such as Makahiki
, a four-month celebration of the New Year in honor of the god Lono. Makahiki
was a time of spiritual renewal, peace, making offerings to the gods, and celebrating with games, feasts, athletic competitions, and music. You capture the real life of Maui, not seen by many tourists. How much time did you yourself spend in Hawai’i researching THE ALOHA QUILT?
Not nearly as much as I would have liked! I visited Hawai’i four times while writing THE ALOHA QUILT, and I hope to return soon. Hawai’i’s natural wonders, fascinating cultural traditions, and racially integrated society truly make it the land of Aloha.