Monday, January 31

The Lost Quilter - Jennifer Chiaverini

Hiring newcomer Gretchen was an even better decision than the Elm Creek Quilters initially realised, for she comes with a husband adept at woodwork and repairs. When Joe tries to repair a long-abandoned desk, he uncovers a small stack of letters addressed to Sylvia's great-great-aunt, Gerda Bergstrom. The first, sent in 1868, is a response to her repeated queries for information about a servant named Joanna - the name of the author is familiar to Sylvia from her earlier reading of Gerda's diaries, it sheds no light on what happened to Joanna, a recaptured runaway slave. The remaining letters, written almost thirty years later, are enquiries about a Douglass Frederick, a name unknown to Sylvia but clearly connected with the events of 1859.
Despite Joanna's best efforts, Josiah Chester - her owner and the father of her newborn son - recaptured her. Determined she not run away again, she has only a night or two at Greenfields Plantation, Virginia, the only home she's ever known, before being sent further south to live with his brother in South Carolina, where another escape attempt would be impossible.
Set primarily in the years leading to, during and shortly after the American Civil War, The Lost Quilter is a spell-binding, horrifying, triumphant novel of trust, betrayal, cruelty, kindness, humanity, prejudice and survival. Chiaverini manages to capture the casual disregard that results from believing other human beings are inherently unequal, describing barbarism that is more striking in its contrast to the illusion of Southern gentility. I found one scene, where Joanna attempts to escape during her return to Virginia, particularly effect - the change in attitude when a woman realises she's aided not a freed woman but a slave is fascinating and horrifying. And of course, quilts and quilting bind the narratives of the past and the present together.
One of the aspects I found most interesting is the justifications for slavery,

Negroes don't feel love or sadness the way [white people] do. They may give the appearance of true feeling, but they understand these sensations only in a brute, rudimentary way, such as a dog or horse might.

What culturally-mediated prejudices do we similarly harbour and justify?
This is a companion piece to The Runaway Quilt, where we first learned of Joanna and of the Bergstrom connection with the Underground Railway. - Alex

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt

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