Where did the idea for THE SUGAR CAMP QUILT come from?
Dorothea Granger first appeared as a minor character in my fourth novel, THE RUNAWAY QUILT. I was so intrigued by her determination and moral courage that I wanted to return to her and give her a book of her own. Since I also wanted to explore what Creek's Crossing might have looked like before the Bergstroms arrived, I set THE SUGAR CAMP QUILT at a time when Dorothea was a younger woman just becoming involved with the Underground Railroad. Since Dorothea was a quilter, I also wove in quilting lore from her era. The quilts Dorothea creates and the fabrics and tools she works with are typical of the times. Quilting lore was a useful creative device for understanding Dorothea, since trends in quilting have reflected trends in American life. 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.
What drew you to the antebellum era? What is it about this period of American history that intrigues you?
Like many quilters, I was fascinated by the stories of signal quilts used along the Underground Railroad. The folklore so captivated my imagination that I included the legend of the Log Cabin block with a black center square in my first novel, THE QUILTER'S APPRENTICE, in which Sylvia mentions that her great-grandparents had sheltered runaway slaves on their central Pennsylvania farm. It worked well as an interesting historical detail for that story, but even then I thought the concept was rich and intriguing enough to deserve further exploration.
In THE SUGAR CAMP QUILT, Dorothea's uncle designs a quilt to help fugitive slaves remember the route to the next station on the Underground Railroad. Did you create the Sugar Camp Quilt pattern, or is this similar to one you've seen or heard about?
The Sugar Camp Quilt uses a traditional quilt pattern called Delectable Mountains. I was inspired to use this pattern in Dorothea's story after seeing a photograph of an antique quilt made by a Pennsylvania quilter who would have been near Dorothea's age. The unusual blocks Dorothea's uncle contributes to the Sugar Camp Quilt are my own invention.
Did quilts play a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad?
According to folklore, quilts 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, some 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 SUGAR CAMP QUILT, I suggest how quilts might have been used in a specific, localized situation to guide runaways. 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 novel.
In addition to the Sugar Camp Quilt, Dorothea also stitches the Authors' Album quilt, which includes patches of fabric autographed by well-known authors. Share with us the significance of this quilt and why it is important to Dorothea to include authors the other quiltmakers consider too controversial.
In Dorothea_s time, quilters would often collaborate on a friendship quilt to commemorate an important event such as a wedding or a departure for the frontier. These friendship quilts are in many ways similar to contemporary scrapbooks or autograph albums in that each participant would embellish a quilt block with his or her signature, and perhaps a drawing, a couplet of poetry, or a Bible verse. To raise funds for a town library, Dorothea proposes to solicit autographs from famous writers of the day and “other personages of note,” sew their signed fabric scraps into a friendship quilt, and raffle it off. Unfortunately, Dorothea and some of the other members of the library board clash when they insist that she exclude from the project certain controversial authors, including Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass. Dorothea refuses to comply because she passionately believes that the quilt should represent the breadth of American scholarship and artistry, just as the library they will build ought to welcome all citizens of Creek's Crossing — black and white, rich and poor.
Each year I make some of the quilts the characters create in my stories to take on by book tour and display for readers. While I was planned my version of the Authors' Album quilt, I followed Dorothea's example and decided to donate my quilt to help raise funds for a non-profit organization that is especially close to my heart, the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation. Sixty wonderful authors — including such notable writers as Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sue Grafton, Anna Quindlen, Rebecca Wells, Jennifer Weiner, Eric Carle, Beverly Cleary, and Nicholas Sparks — generously lent their names to this project. You can see photos of the quilt and the authors' signatures and find out how you can win the quilt on my website . You'll also find a link to the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation so you can learn more about the wonderful work they are doing for children afflicted with cancer, their families, and the professionals who care for them.
Dorothea's family collaborates with Underground Railroad stationmaster and conductor Abel Wright, a freeborn African-American, and his wife, a former slave named Constance. Considering the threats to their freedom even northern African-Americans faced in the 1850s, would it have been unusual to find free blacks among Underground Railroad workers?
On the contrary, current research indicates that a significant number of stationmasters and conductors in both the north and the south were African-American. It concerns me that even today the contributions of African-Americans to the success of the Underground Railroad still seem to be understated. I created the characters of Abel and Constance Wright in part to represent the great many African-Americans who were actively engaged in bringing about emancipation for themselves and their people. They were not simply waiting passively for whites to deliver them.
What makes Dorothea a remarkable young woman for her time and her situation?
I believe that strong, courageous women are found in every generation, but perhaps what sets Dorothea apart is that she is faces misfortune with dignity and lives according to moral principles, even when doing so puts her at great personal risk. She also comes to accept that other people often possess qualities of strength and bravery and goodness — or weakness and deceit — that their outward appearances may conceal. At first, Dorothea has a tendency to decide whether to like or despise, to trust or mistrust based upon first impressions, but by the end of the novel, she has grown wiser and realizes that only with time and reflection will she gain insight into a person's true character.
Two of the people Dorothea initially misjudges are her Uncle Jacob and a newcomer to town, Thomas Nelson. Why was she initially so wrong about them and how do her opinions change?
I would not say that Dorothea's original opinions were wrong, just incomplete. Where she errs, at least at first, is in refusing to admit that there could be more to these men, something within that redeems them. Uncle Jacob is a stern, demanding taskmaster, stubborn and unyielding, and secure in his abilities to manage the family farm–and he is all too ready to point out the failures of Dorothea's parents to manage their own land and to raise Dorothea properly. What infuriates Dorothea most is that he is right, but she is loyal to her parents and resents her uncle for treating them with such scorn. Until she learns of her Uncle Jacob's secret grief and hidden courage, it is impossible for her to know him fully. That is to some degree his fault, because he was determined to keep the more noble aspects of his nature concealed from his family. Thomas Nelson earns Dorothea's enmity by taking over as schoolmaster. After the original schoolteacher married, Dorothea took over in the interim and hoped to be appointed permanently, but the school board was impressed with Thomas Nelson's education and family connections, and gave him the job instead. Thomas does not help his case by acting as if he has been exiled to the lowliest dusty corner of the world, and by declaring Dorothea's former pupils to be woefully ignorant and well behind their counterparts in the east. Dorothea has a hard time seeing beyond his boorishness and finding his core of decency, intelligence, and courage. In both cases, she must be willing to admit her own faults and mistakes before she can see these two men for what they truly are.
The title of THE SUGAR CAMP QUILT and the name of Dorothea's quilt come from a remote location on the family property where each winter the Grangers make maple sugar for their own use and for trade. What kind of research did you do to learn about this process?
I first learned about maple sugaring as a child growing up in Michigan when my mom took my brother, sister, and me to a maple sugaring event at the Drayton Plains Nature Center. We tapped trees, boiled the sap, and ate the maple syrup we made. Throughout their lives, writers tuck experiences away in our memories, never knowing the impact they had upon us until they surface decades later in our work. I also consulted with Tom McCrumm, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, for specific details about how maple sugar would have been made in the 1850's.
What's next on the horizon for the Elm Creek Quilters?
Fans of the Elm Creek Quilts series will be pleased to learn that they won't have to wait long for the next book in the series, since I will have two books out in the next year. THE CHRISTMAS QUILT (October 2005) is set after the first successful year of Elm Creek Quilt Camp. In the spirit of the season, Sylvia encourages Sarah to set aside her differences with her estranged mother as she reminisces about the Christmas traditions handed down through generations of the Bergstrom family. In April 2006, CIRCLE OF QUILTERS returns us to the present day as Sylvia, Sarah, and friends search for two quilt instructors to take the places of their colleagues who announced their upcoming departures at the end of THE MASTER QUILTER.