Master Quilter Sylvia Bergstrom Compson treasures an antique quilt called by three names -- Birds in the Air, after its pattern; the Runaway Quilt, after the woman who sewed it; and the Elm Creek Quilt, after the place to which its maker longed to return. That quilter was Joanna, a fugitive slave who traveled by the Underground Railroad to reach safe haven in 1859 at Elm Creek Farm.
Though Joanna's freedom proved short-lived -- she was forcibly returned by slave catchers to Josiah Chester's plantation in Virginia -- she left the Bergstrom family a most precious gift, her son. Hans and Anneke Bergstrom, along with maiden aunt Gerda, raised the boy as their own, and the secret of his identity died with their generation. Now it falls to Sylvia -- drawing upon Gerda's diary and Joanna's quilt -- to connect Joanna's past to present-day Elm Creek Manor.
Just as Joanna could not have foreseen that, generations later, her quilt would become the subject of so much speculation and wonder, Sylvia and her friends never could have imagined the events Joanna witnessed in her lifetime. Punished for her escape by being sold off to her master's brother in Edisto Island, South Carolina, Joanna grieves over the loss of her son and resolves to run again, to reunite with him someday in the free North. Farther south than she has ever been, she nevertheless finds allies, friends, and even love in the slave quarter of Oak Grove, a cotton plantation where her skill with needle and thread soon becomes highly prized.
Through hardship and deprivation, Joanna dreams of freedom and returning to Elm Creek Farm. Determined to remember each landmark on the route north, Joanna pieces a quilt of scraps left over from the household sewing, concealing clues within the meticulous stitches. Later, in service as a seamstress to the new bride of a Confederate officer, Joanna moves on to Charleston, where secrets she keeps will affect the fate of a nation, and her abilities and courage enable her to aid the country and the people she loves most.
The knowledge that scraps can be pieced and sewn into simple lines -- beautiful both in and of themselves and also for what they represent and what they can accomplish -- carries Joanna through dark days. Sustaining herself and her family through ingenuity and art during the Civil War and into Reconstruction, Joanna leaves behind a remarkable artistic legacy that, at last, allows Sylvia to discover the fate of the long-lost quilter.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide 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.
Master Quilter Sylvia Bergstrom Compson is haunted by a woman she knows only through the story preserved in her great-great aunt’s memoir: Joanna, a fugitive slave who traveled by the Underground Railroad in 1859 to reach safe haven at Elm Creek Farm, the Bergstrom ancestral home. Joanna is captured, thrown back into slavery, and punished for running away by being sold down south to her master's brother, where her needlework skills earn her the place of seamstress to the household. She marries and has a child, yet is separated from her husband and daughter when she is presented as a wedding gift to her new master’s daughter. In Charleston, Joanna becomes a Union spy, as her new mistress’s husband is an influential Confederate officer and Joanna alone can infiltrate his study. After surviving the great Charleston fire of 1861 and staying behind as her husband escapes to join an African-American Union regiment, Joanna flees with her children to Port Royal, where the Union is already entrenched. Sylvia’s discovery of Joanna’s artistic and cultural legacy at a historical museum on Edisto Island brings resolution to the mystery of the lost quilter first introduced in The Runaway Quilt.
Questions for Discussion
1. At the quilting party when Joanna is a child, the elder Mrs. Chester says slave owners are “enslaved as much as [slaves] are and must resign ourselves to it” (p. 55). How is this true in her perception? What does this say about her understanding of Joanna’s life? Do you agree or disagree with her?
2. Joanna sees Miss Evangeline’s engagement as “being sold off to the highest bidder” (p. 132). Do you agree with Joanna’s impression of antebellum courtship for people of Miss Evangeline’s social class? What are some differences and some similarities between the marriage arrangements of Colonel Harper and Miss Evangeline, and Joanna and Titus?
3. Joanna gets off to a rough start with Leah and Leah’s daughter Lizzie. Why, then, does Joanna risk her own safety, and possibly her life, by helping Leah when she is punished with the stake? What does she mean when she tells Titus “I am Leah” (p 142)?
4. Joanna and Leah both face very difficult situations during their lives. What finally breaks Leah? What makes Joanna stronger?
5. When Titus has the chance to run while fetching Miss Evangeline from Charleston, he doesn’t take it because he can’t bear to leave Joanna and their unborn child. But later, he makes the decision to join General Hunter’s colored regiment at Hilton Head. What caused him to change his mind about leaving Joanna and Ruthie behind? Why was Joanna able to forgive him both times?
6. After her violent encounter with Missus Givens, Hannah stops speaking entirely. Joanna has to hide her reading ability from all her masters but tries to use it to prove her story of being a freed woman. How does the power of language and literacy affect the slaves’ lives?
7. Despite having a comfortable life, Miss Evangeline lies and exaggerates about everything. Why do you think she does so? What does she gain, if anything, and what does she sacrifice?
8. When Mr. Lewis approaches Joanna about being a spy, she is understandably distrustful of his motives. Her price is the freedom of Hannah and Ruthie, should they be split up and sold. Do you think Mr. Lewis is really capable of keeping his promise? Do Joanna’s reports truly help Mr. Lincoln’s army?
9. Joanna’s Birds of the Air scrap quilt is a record of landmarks on the way back north to freedom. What, aside from a map, does the quilt represent? What does it mean to the modern women at the historical museum on Edisto Island?
10. Sylvia finds great satisfaction in learning about Joanna North’s story, even though she has not conclusively proven that Joanna North is the Joanna that Gerda mentions in her memoir. Do you think Sylvia will eventually prove they are one and the same? Why or why not? Do you agree that “it was enough to know that such a woman existed” (p. 336)?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Do some online research to learn more about how quilts might have been used as signals for the Underground Railroad. Do you think the quilt code theory is valid? Why or why not?
2. Take a look at the Birds in the Air quilt on Jennifer Chiaverini’s website: http://elmcreek.net/index.php/gallery/quilt-detail/birds-in-the-air/. Have you ever made or seen a Birds in the Air quilt before? Why do you suppose Joanna selected this particular pattern for her quilt?
3. The Quilters of North Freedom, the fictional sewing circle founded by Joanna North, is reminiscent of the remarkable Quilters of Gee’s Bend. To read more about this formerly little-known community of quilters in rural Alabama that has become widely renowned for their craft, visit: http://www.quiltsofgeesbend.com/index.shtml
4. If you have read the other Elm Creek Quilts books, how do you feel The Lost Quilter ties in to the “family” of books? Does this answer questions raised in other books? Does it raise questions about the rest of the series?
A Conversation with Jennifer Chiaverini
1. The Lost Quilter tells the harrowing yet ultimately redemptive story of Joanna, first introduced as a fugitive slave in your fourth novel, The Runaway Quilt. When you wrote The Runaway Quilt, did you know you would resume Joanna’s story in another book? Why did you decide to pick up the story of Joanna so many years later?
When I wrote The Runaway Quilt, I deliberately didn’t envision Joanna’s life after her recapture because I wanted her fate to remain a mystery to me as it was to Sylvia and those who sheltered her at Elm Creek Farm. Joanna haunted me for years afterward, however, and I often found myself puzzling over the many different paths her life might have taken. Eventually I decided that I had to continue Joanna’s story and find answers to some of the questions that lingered after the close of The Runaway Quilt, especially why Joanna never returned to the Elm Creek Valley.
2. Is Joanna based on a real person?
Joanna as I originally created her was not based upon any living person, although her courage and determination were inspired by the countless number of slaves who refused to be daunted and risked everything to find their freedom. When I returned to Joanna in The Lost Quilter, I was inspired by the story of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave who worked as a Union spy within Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s household, and so I created a similar role for Joanna in Charleston. I based some of Joanna’s postwar experiences upon those of Harriet Tubman, the renowned Underground Railroad conductor, abolitionist, and activist. Like those women, Joanna’s contributions to the Union victory were not rewarded as promptly or as generously as they should have been.
3. Describe your historical research process for this novel.
I’m fortunate to live in Madison, where I have the wonderful resources of the Wisconsin Historical Society readily available for my secondary research. I also traveled to Charleston, South Carolina and consulted with experts from the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Edisto Island Museum. Other sites I visited that informed the settings and events of Joanna’s story include the Old Slave Mart, the Aiken-Rhett House, the Nathaniel Russell House, and Middleton Place.
4. How did you find out about the quilt code theory? There is a lot of dispute over whether it’s valid. What’s your take on it?
According to folklore, quilts made from certain block patterns or particular colors were used as signals to indicate a station on the Underground Railroad. Other stories describe maps stitched into quilts or directional cues hidden within the secret meanings of quilt block names. However, numerous reputable historians have disputed these claims, pointing out that many of these assertions were based upon incorrectly dated quilts, that the time and resources required for making a single quilt would have made the systematic use of quilts as signals impracticable, that no testimonies of escaped slaves mention signal quilts, and that no signal quilts from that era have been conclusively identified. In The Runaway Quilt, I included an author’s note directing readers to additional resources so they could learn more about the ongoing debate. In The Sugar Camp Quilt, my second novel set in the antebellum period, I suggested that quilts might have been used in a specific, localized situation to guide runaways. In both of these novels as well as The Lost Quilter, I did my best to adhere to the historical record while presenting what I hoped would be regarded as plausible explanations for the evolution of the signal quilt myths. Historians have largely discredited the idea of one “quilt code” that spanned the vast length of the Underground Railroad, however, and therefore signal quilts of that sort do not figure in my novels. As for myself, I don’t believe that the quilt code was real, and it is worth noting that it is not Joanna’s quilt but her intelligence, persistence, and courage that ultimately win her her freedom.
5. Did a Birds of the Air quilt inspire this story, or did you have the idea for the story first and then find a pattern to help tell it?
The story came first and the quilt followed. I chose the Birds in the Air block for Joanna’s quilt because it was one of the patterns often named in stories about signal quilts and also because of its evocative name, which calls to mind flight and the escape Joanna longed for.
6. Do you think of the quilts you feature in each of your Elm Creek Quilts novels as characters, of a sort? How do you decide which quilts and patterns to include in which novels?
The quilts my characters make are never arbitrary. They are not included as an afterthought or to provide set decoration, but are as important to my characters as real quilts are to the quilters who make them.
Sometimes a quilt will play an important role as a narrative device. In The Quilter’s Apprentice, a sampler quilt serves as a useful instructional project as the elder woman teaches her young friend how to quilt, but the patterns also evoke stories from the elder woman's childhood and life as a young bride on the World War II home front. Sometimes the quilt’s purpose is metaphoric, such as the Birds in the Air quilt in The Lost Quilter, which symbolizes Joanna’s longing for freedom and her determination to deliver those she loves from slavery.
Often I’ll use a quilt to provide insight into a particular character's personality or past. You can tell a lot about a quilter from the style of quilts she makes, the techniques she uses, her color and fabric palettes, and whether she finishes quilts or has a closet full of half-finished projects. When I write historical fiction, I enjoy researching the patterns that were popular during a particular era and the fabrics and tools that were available to quilters of the time. My quilting readers especially seem to appreciate that I hold myself to the highest standards of historical accuracy and respect for the rich heritage of quilting in my books.
7. Will you finish telling Joanna’s story in detail in a future book?
After completing The Lost Quilter, I feel as if Joanna’s story has been fully told, something I didn’t feel at the conclusion of The Runaway Quilt. I will probably return to this era in future novels, however, for I have yet to chronicle the experiences of Bergstrom family on Elm Creek Farm during the Civil War.
8. Although most of The Lost Quilter is set in Civil War-era South Carolina, familiar contemporary characters appear in a framing narrative in which Sylvia Bergstrom Compson stumbles upon new information that may at last shed light upon Joanna’s long unknown fate. Why do you keep returning to Sylvia as a character? Is she your favorite?
Sylvia is indeed my favorite character, and my readers have let me know that she’s one of their favorites, too. I consider Sylvia the heart and soul of the Elm Creek Quilts novels, and whether I follow her in contemporary times or travel back in time to explore the lives of her ancestors, Sylvia’s spirit infuses every book.
9. At the end of The Lost Quilter, Sylvia discovers a remarkable community of quilters founded generations earlier by a former slave, Joanna North. Distinctive features within some of the extant quilts strongly suggest that Joanna North is the Joanna who sought refuge at Elm Creek Farm, something the reader already knows to be true. Why did you feel it was important for Sylvia to make this discovery as well? Why didn’t you have her find conclusive, indisputable proof?
I wanted Sylvia to have some closure, not only because I’ve left her with so many other matters unexplained and unknowable, but also because readers adore her and I know they would want her to have a happy ending. I couldn’t bring myself to give her indisputable proof, however, because historical inquiries seldom result in perfectly neat and tidy answers. I hope readers will find the ending satisfactory in that it offers a sense of resolution without tying up every loose thread. Even though I believe Joanna’s story is complete, it’s possible that one of those loose threads might lead me to revisit her in a future book, perhaps later in her life, or to continue the story of her family with her children at center stage.
10. You say you initially hadn’t planned on creating a series, but this is your fourteenth Elm Creek Quilts novel. What changed your mind?
After completing my first book, I assumed I would move on to new settings, new characters, and new themes in future novels. Readers responded so positively to The Quilter’s Apprentice, however, that I decided to return to the Elm Creek Valley for a sequel—and after that, one book naturally led into the next.
Although the Elm Creek Quilts novels are a series, I write them so that each one may be read independently of the others. Sometimes this means I continue the story of the contemporary characters, but I also enjoy taking secondary characters from earlier stories and making them the protagonists of new books as I did in The Lost Quilter. Because I’m not stuck in the traditional, strictly chronological series format, I’ve enjoyed the creative freedom to explore new settings and characters while still satisfying readers who want to see the people and places they have already come to know and love. I enjoy the world of Elm Creek Quilts as much as my readers do, and I plan to continue the series as long as each book is a unique, interesting, captivating story in its own right.
11. What’s your next project? Would you consider writing a book outside of the Elm Creek series?
My next book, The Aloha Quilt, will take readers from Elm Creek Manor to Hawaii as Elm Creek Quilter Bonnie Markham helps an old friend launch a new quilt camp in Lahaina on Maui. As for books outside of the series, it would certainly be fun to write a children’s book for my two sons to enjoy. Or perhaps someday I'll put my academic training to use, delve more deeply into historical research, and write more nonfiction. I'm excited about the possibilities and grateful that my loyal readers have encouraged me to keep writing.
Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of the New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series, five collections of quilt projects, and several historical fiction novels. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and sons in Madison, Wisconsin. To learn more, visit JenniferChiaverini.com.