Sunday, August 15, 2010
The Lost Quilter
by Jennifer Chiaverini
Simon and Schuster Books 2009
This novel (The Lost Quilter) is actually a sequel to an earlier novel - called The Runaway Quilt (which I have not yet read) - in which the slave seamstress Joanna escaped from the plantation in Virginia, and managed to get as far as Elm Creek Farm in Pennsylvania. There she was taught how to read, how to quilt and gave birth to her son (Douglass Frederick a quadroon - Joanna herself is a mulatto - born of a slave mother and a white master - Douglas was also born of a white master so he is 1/4 African American)
The beginning of the Lost Quilter briefly tells the story of Joanna's journey from Virginia to Pennsylvania and of how she was betrayed by Anneke to the Slave catchers and dragged back to Virginia. The year is 1859 and the rest of the novel tells Joanna's story in detail of her life as a slave in Virginia and later in South Carolina (after she was sold) in the months before the Civil war began.
While Joanna is enslaved in South Carolina, she begins making a quilt that tells of her journey from Virginia to Pennsylvania so that she can remember how to get back to freedom.
Joanna marries Titus, another slave on the South Carolina Plantation, and gives birth to a daughter Ruthie. The family is split up when Joanna is taken to Charleston by her masters newly-married daughter. Titus and Ruthie are left behind on the plantation.
Some months later Ruthie is brought to Charleston to be with her mother. The reason given, is that her job will be as a personal playmate and child minder to the mistress's baby - if the child is a daughter. The mistress gives birth to a son Thomas so Ruthie is not put to work yet. She is barely 2 years old.
This was an excellent story to read - especially for its minute detail about the daily life of a slave. I must find the earlier novel The Runaway Quilt to read.
Fantastic Fiction review
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 in Pennsylvania.
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.
Jennifer Chiaverini (the author) is pictured on the cover of the latest issue of Country Women magazine - August/September 2010 issue. The article has an interview, some photos and a new quilt pattern.