The Union Quilters by Jennifer Chiaverini
It is 150 years since the beginning of the American Civil War. Among the books about the Civil War published this anniversary year is a novel The Union Quilters by Jennifer Chiaverini. This book is the most recent in a long series of novels all featuring quilters – contemporary and historical.
What struck me most at the beginning of this novel, as wives send their husbands off to war, is that this is still happening today, as men (and women now of course) are leaving their families to go to war. In this case the casualties are members of the small community of Water’s Ford, in the Elm Creek Valley, they are husbands and brothers, lovers and sons – and the community grieves together as each letter containing sad news is received by a family.
There are also men returning, wounded and disabled by their experiences, having to adjust to a more difficult life. It all seems to much like it is today with soldiers returning to be buried, or rehabilitated into the life they left to go to war.
There are also women who, with their husbands unavailable, are now making decisions for their families. There are women who are enjoying, for the first time, the independence of the liberty to chose how they spend their days. Each day now begins with choices to be made by themselves alone, and with this, these women gain a new sense of independence, self-esteem – and the freedom to be themselves.
And, of course, since this is an Elm Creek Quilt novel, many of these women are quilters. They are making quilts for their families, and quilts for the men who are away from home. Around the quilt frame these women discuss their lives, and the news from the soldiers received in their letters home. It is not often good news although the men attempt to make their situations better than they really are as they write to their families.
We also have sections of the narrative told by the men themselves – telling us what they are not putting into the letters they send home. Telling us of the miserable conditions in which they live, as soldiers fighting, and as prisoners.
The Elm Creek community is in a rural, and quite remote, part Pennsylvania. There are free slaves living among the primarily white community. In previous novels we have read about how this community helped runaway slaves. Now we learn about the difficulties of the free black men during this civil war. Black men were initially not allowed to enlist as soldiers – only as kitchen help and other support roles. Eventually they were allowed to enlist as equals but the struggle was a bitter one for many men.
The story we follow in The Union Quilters is set firmly in the past – we will have to wait for the next novel o be reacquainted with the contemporary characters we have come to know in Jennifer Chaiverini’s novels.