I am a quiltmaker. I also love the history behind each quilt made and the meaning people give to them. Especially quilts which are sewn for a special occasion such as a wedding or birth. Giving quilts for special occasions is a common thing to do now and in the past. I am telling you all this because the book I review here, The Quilter’s legacy, is part five of a twenty-part series about the lives and history of a fictional group of quilters called the Elm Creek Quilters. Their stories are told through the quilts they make. Sylvia Compson is one of the main characters in the books. This particular book is about five lost quilts, ‘the legacy’, Sylvia’s mother made to commemorate her wedding, anniversary and her journey towards motherhood.
All the books in this series can be read separately. That is also why I review the fifth part – The spoilers don’t bother me because I read for the atmosphere of the book and not the plot. The books switch perspective between contemporary time and history. One part is the life of the Elm Creek Quilters now, and the other part tells the story of Sylvia’s family from the moment they moved to Waterford halfway the 19th century. This particular book focuses on the history of her mother, called Eleanor, who grew up in New York around the turn of the 20th century. Eleanor has a heart condition which the doctors fear will lead to an early death. Consequently, her whole family treats her as a dying small bird and the only one who treats her as a normal person is Frederick Bergstrom who sells horses to her father. Frederick harbours a secret love for Eleanor. When Eleanor has to flee her family home in New York to avoid a forced marriage he offers to take her to Waterford. Eleanor agrees and they get married soon after.
Meanwhile, in contemporary Waterford, Sylvia is preparing for her wedding with Andrew. They are planning a road trip together to visit Andrew’s children to tell them about the engagement in person. However, they fear to bring this news, because Andrew suspects his children won’t accept their marriage. Sylvia is some years older than him (in her 70s) and had a stroke a few years back. The children fear it won’t be a marriage but more a caregiver relationship for Andrew. Meanwhile, Sylvia also decides to look for the quilts her mother made, among them her marriage quilt. Her mother is the one who taught her to quilt, so it would fit to give her wedding quilt a role in the marriage. First, she goes to the attic of the mansion, but the quilts are not there. It turns out that Claudia, her estranged sister who lived in the mansion for years after Sylvia left, sold the quilts when she had money problems. That means the quilts can be anywhere.
Sarah, another Elm Creek Quilter, suggests putting the description of the quilts on a website dedicated to finding lost quilts. People can connect with each other through the website to share clues of the whereabouts of the quilts. A quilter’s own style is so distinctive that it is possible to find and recognize long-lost quilts. Soon the clues come in from all over the country. Andrew and Sylvia decide to extend their road trip to investigate some of the clues they get. Some turn out fruitful, others were useless.
This search for the long-lost quilts was a great element in the story because the question whether Sylvia would find the quilts kept me reading. What I particularly liked about the quest in this book is that not all clues led closer to the quilts. Sometimes in adventure books, everything that happens to the protagonist somehow adds to solving the mystery, which is unlikely. Now, a clue was sometimes useless and some clues they got put into question the possibility of finding the quilts at all! This felt more realistic. It is possible to find a long-lost quilt, but certainly not easy. I won’t spoil whether Sylvia finds the quilts or not. I’ve read some of the other books in the series, and they are sometimes a bit long-winded. This part did not have that problem, because the search for the quilts kept it exciting and the plot moving.
What I like most in this series is the changing perspective between the contemporary and historical part of the story. Each book in the series focuses on a particular member of the Bergstrom family, so each book gives you new clues to piece together their complete family history. This also makes me interested in the other books in the series, which is a smart move by Chiaverini. Both the contemporary and historical perspective are told from the perspective of a woman. Its focus is on how the women find a place for themselves in the world and happiness at whatever time they are living. It is interesting to read how historical events and times impact that. However, some of the historical parts of the book felt unrealistic to me. The Bergstrom family seems to be caught up in ALL major events in American history. Be it the abolition movement, the Titanic, the Spanish flu or the Second World War. It was especially unrealistic because the Bergstrom family are somehow always on the ‘right side’ of history. I get that Chiaverini wants to use the family to write about American history, but I think she is too ambitious.
Despite these shortcomings, I thoroughly loved this book. I cared about the characters, and it was interesting to read about their lives, despite it being unrealistic at times. Focusing on the female perspective and quilts also adds something very wholesome to the books. Quilts are often associated with groups of women working on them in companionship. This is combined with a quiet kind of freedom because through a quilt a woman has always been able to express and explore her individual taste and personality. This is done in solidarity with other women. In these books the same kind of solidarity and warm feelings are present. This makes the books a perfect feel-good read when you need a pick-me-up.
Stitchers award for weaving together the lives of women through the quilts they stitch
Jennifer Chiaverini, the quilters legacy (Elm Creek Quilters #5), (New York, 2003)
Bella G. Bear