The Union Quilters, An Elm Creek Quilts NovelThe Union Quilters, An Elm Creek Quilts Novel
Jennifer Chiaverini
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In 1862 Water's Ford, Pennsylvania, abolitionism is prevalent, even passionate, so the local men rally to answer Mr. Lincoln's call to arms. Thus the women of Elm Creek Valley's quilting bee are propelled into the unknown. Constance Wright, married to Abel, a skilled sharpshooter courageous enough to have ventured south to buy his wife's freedom from a Virginia plantation, knows well her husband's certainty that all people, enslaved and free, North and South, need colored men like him to fight for a greater purpose. Sisters-in-law Dorothea Nelson and Charlotte Granger wish safe passage for their learned husbands. Schoolmaster turned farmer Thomas carries Dorothea's Dove in the Window quilt with him. Charlotte's husband, Dr. Jonathan Granger, takes more than a doctor's bag to his post at a field hospital. Alongside the devotion of his wife, pregnant with their second child, Jonathan brings the promise he made to his unrequited love, Gerda Bergstrom: "My first letter will be to you."
     

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NYT bestselling author, Jennifer Chiaverini pens the famed Elm Creek Quilts series and currently focuses her writing on Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. Her original quilt designs have been featured in several quilting magazines. She taught writing at Penn State and Edgewood College and designs the Elm Creek Quilts fabric lines. A graduate of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, Jennifer lives in Wisconsin.


 

 A CONVERSATION WITH JENNIFER CHIAVERINI AUTHOR OF Mrs. Lincolnís Dressmaker


 

You write two books a year, some historical and some contemporary. What are some of the different eras in which your books take place? Which time period do you like writing about best?

I’m fascinated by history, especially women’s roles in American history, and writing the Elm Creek Quilts series has given me the opportunity to study and write about several generations of the Bergstrom family in a variety of historic periods and places. In The Quilter’s Legacy, readers meet Eleanor Bergstrom, whose story unfolds in turn-of-the-century Manhattan and World War One era Pennsylvania. In The Quilter’s Homecoming, her niece Elizabeth experiences the challenges of life on a Southern California ranch during the Roaring Twenties. A more recent novel, The Lost Quilter, takes place in Charleston and Edisto Island, South Carolina, during the Civil War. If I had to pick a favorite era to write about, I would choose the antebellum and Civil War period, but I’m looking forward to returning to Roaring Twenties and Depression-era California in my next book, and someday I’d love to write a novel set during the American Revolution.

There is no other author writing a series that moves effortlessly between the past and present from one book to the next. Tell us how that feels creatively. How do you come up with so many different story lines spanning different generations? Did you plan to take this approach from the beginning of the series?

I enjoy writing both contemporary and historical stories, and I’m pleased that my readers—and my publisher—have allowed me to stretch the definition of series so that I can continue to write in both genres. When I wrote my first novel, The Quilter’s Apprentice, I had no idea it would be the first of many intertwined books, so I didn’t map out an extended storyline that would be spread out over a certain number of volumes. In hindsight, I think it’s fortunate that I launched the Elm Creek Quilts series this way. Instead of proceeding in a strict linear fashion, following the same thread of the same character’s life in perfect chronological order, I’ve been able to take secondary characters from earlier stories and make them the protagonists of new books. In other novels, I’ve delved into a familiar character’s past, exploring entirely new settings and characters that are still tied in some way to the Elm Creek Valley. Because I’m not stuck in the traditional series format, I’ve enjoyed the creative freedom to write novels that explore new characters and settings while still satisfying readers who want to see the people and places they have already come to know and love.

You describe key battles and troop movements in the Civil War. How did you research these details for The Union Quilters?

Whenever I write historical fiction, I begin my research at the Wisconsin Historical Society library here in Madison. It’s a wonderful resource, an archive of marvelous depth and scope tended by knowledgeable, curious, enthusiastic historians. For The Union Quilters in particular, I’m also indebted to Professor Paul A. Cimbala, a professor in the Department of History at Fordham University, who graciously answered my questions about the era. He was especially helpful in providing crucial information about African-American soldiers and the Veterans Reserve Corps. Any mistakes, of course, are mine alone.

The Lost Quilter was set in antebellum and wartime South Carolina, now The Union Quilters is set in the North during the same era. What do you find most fascinating about this time in history?

 

The Civil War era was a tumultuous and trans formative period for our nation, showing the best and worst of humanity in stark contrast. Looking back, we discover great moral failings alongside true heroism in the struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. My personal heroes are people who face adversity with moral courage and dignity, whose hunger for justice and compassion for others lead them to stand up for what is right even at great risk to themselves. My favorite characters to write about either possess similar qualities, or are given the opportunity to summon up these qualities and do what is right but fall short. What slavery and the Underground Railroad say about our country—that we are capable of both great moral failings and tremendous goodness—resonates strongly even today, perhaps especially today, and as a creative person, I am drawn to explore and try to understand that conflict.

The Union Quilters amplifies the agonizing wait to hear news from husbands, brothers, and sons at war. The news that did come through was rarely comforting and many men perished on the battlefield. How did you decide which characters meet difficult fates?

Several characters in The Union Quilters first appeared in earlier Elm Creek Quilts novels set during the antebellum period, and for a particular few, I explained what became of them after the war. Since their fates had already been established in earlier books, I had to keep those restrictions in mind when I decided what would happen to them during wartime. In The Runaway Quilt, The Sugar Camp Quilt, and The Lost Quilter, some of these characters served as stationmasters and conductors on the Underground Railroad, and one, Joanna North, was a fugitive slave. Considering their past adventures and conflicts, I thought it would be interesting to explore how they responded to the Civil War when it finally erupted, especially how Dorothea reconciled her passionate abolitionism with her pacifism, how Abel Wright struggled to serve his country when African-Americans were not permitted to enlist, and how Jonathan Granger dealt with the dangers and horrors he faced as a regimental surgeon. Their experiences are based upon historical accounts of real women on the home front and real soldiers at war.

 

The women of The Union Quilters played a critical role in the war, providing funds and supplies for the soldiers and running the town farms and businesses in their absence. Were you inspired by any real-life events/stories of women’s groups in the Civil War?

In The Union Quilters, as in history, Union and Confederate women alike made quilts for soldiers to use in camps and in hospitals. They sewed and raffled off quilts to raise funds to support important causes, and they quilted to express themselves artistically during a time of national strife and personal turmoil. On the northern home front, the demands of war thrust women into new roles, for they suddenly needed to support and provide for the men who had always been cast in the role of their protectors. This was an unsettling transition, and yet, for many women it offered an exhilarating sense of independence. The women’s advocacy for their husbands, sons, and brothers empowered them. The volunteer organizations they created to provide food, clothing, medicine, and other essential goods for the soldiers allowed them to step beyond the private, domestic sphere and participate in a new, public realm outside of the traditional political structure from which they were excluded. Accounts of women’s volunteer organizations, especially the Ladies’ Aid Association of Weldon (PA), inspired the activities of the Union Quilters in the novel. Like their fictional counterparts, the Ladies’ Aid Association of Weldon constructed a hall to host fundraisers, incorporated, and maintained ownership of a very important cultural center and civic resource despite strong male opposition. This provided the women with significant influence and power in their town, leverage they had not previously possessed.

We are currently in two wars; do contemporary quilters band together to support the troops as the Union Quilters did?

Indeed they do. One organization, the Quilts of Valor Foundation, provides quilts to comfort and honor wounded soldiers and veterans whose lives were affected by their wartime service. Another group, the Camo Quilt Project, was founded by the mother of a soldier and provides camouflage quilts for soldiers to use in the field. The Army Baby Quilt Project offers baby quilts to Army mothers who give birth while their husbands and partners are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of these worthwhile projects follows in time-honored tradition of quilters using their skills to contribute to their communities.

The four main women in The Union Quilters are each incredibly determined and resilient, and you tip to the start of the women’s suffrage movement. What do you say to people who think your books are only about quilting?

People who assume my books are only about quilting obviously haven’t read them! I’ve always known that my books are about quilters—in other words, people—rather than quilts or quilting. That said, the quilts my characters make are never arbitrary. They aren’t included as an afterthought or as set decoration, but are as important to my characters as real quilts are to the quilters who make them.

Often I’ll use a quilt to provide insight into a particular character's personality or past. You can learn a great deal about quilters from the style of quilts they make, the techniques they use, their color and fabric palettes, and whether they finish quilts or have a closet full of abandoned projects. 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 a master quilter teaches her young friend how to quilt, but the patterns also evoke stories from the older woman's childhood and life as a young bride on the World War II home front. In Round Robin, a collaborative project allowed me to tell the story from different characters' perspectives as the central block was passed around the circle of friends and each contributed her border.

 

When I write historical fiction, I thoroughly research the patterns that were popular during a particular era and the fabrics and tools that were available to quilters of the time. Quilting lore is a useful creative device for understanding the characters in my historical novels, since trends in quilting have reflected trends in society. Social and political events of different periods influenced everything from the materials quilters used to the subjects they depicted. I have found that quilts and other examples of the “domestic arts” can teach us a great deal about everyday life in these bygone eras.

Ultimately, however, my novels are character-driven stories of friendship, history, and moral courage, and you don’t need to know anything about quilts or quilting to enjoy them.

Can you give us a preview of what’s to come?!

In my next novel, The Wedding Quilt (Dutton, October 2011), I’ll return to the contemporary Elm Creek Quilters and also flash forward twenty-five years into their future. Longtime readers will be delighted to know that they’ll meet Sarah’s long-awaited twins in this book, and many unresolved issues in the other Elm Creek Quilters’ lives will reach conclusion. After that, I’m planning to return to California and the characters introduced in The Quilter’s Homecoming for another historical novel. I enjoy the world of the Elm Creek Quilters 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.

 


 
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