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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. It probably won’t surprise my readers to learn that if I had to choose a favorite period to write about, I would choose the antebellum and Civil War eras.
The Civil War era was a tumultuous and transformative time 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.
Several characters in The Union Quilters first appeared in earlier Elm Creek Quilts novels set during the antebellum period. As I reflected upon 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 woman on the home front and real soldiers at 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.
- Jennifer Chiaverini
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