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The Runaway Quilt

An Elm Creek Quilts Novel


The fourth book in the popular Elm Creek Quilts series explores a question that has long captured the imagination of quilters and historians alike: Did stationmasters of the Underground Railroad use quilts to signal to fugitive slaves?

In her first novel, The Quilter's Apprentice, Jennifer Chiaverini wove quilting lore with tales from the World War II home front. Now, following Round Robin and The Cross-Country Quilters, Chiaverini revisits the legends of Elm Creek Manor, as Sylvia Compson discovers evidence of her ancestors' courageous involvement in the Underground Railroad.

Alerted to the possibility that her family had ties to the slaveholding South, Sylvia scours her attic and finds three quilts and a memoir written by Gerda, the spinster sister of clan patriarch Hans Bergstrom. The memoir describes the founding of Elm Creek Manor and how, using quilts as markers, Hans, his wife, Anneke, and Gerda came to beckon fugitive slaves to safety within its walls. When a runaway named Joanna arrives from a South Carolina plantation pregnant with her master's child, the Bergstroms shelter her through a long, dangerous winter -- imagining neither the impact of her presence nor the betrayal that awaits them.

The memoir raises new questions for every one it answers, leading Sylvia ever deeper into the tangle of the Bergstrom legacy. Aided by the Elm Creek Quilters, as well as by descendants of others named in Gerda's tale, Sylvia dares to face the demons of her family's past and at the same time reaffirm her own moral center. A spellbinding fugue on the mysteries of heritage, The Runaway Quilt unfolds with all the drama and suspense of a classic in the making.

This reading group guide for The Runaway Quilt includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Chiaverini. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In The Runaway Quilt, Jennifer Chiaverini returns to Elm Creek Manor and the Bergstrom family lineage.

After Sylvia Bergstrom Compson lectures at a quilt guild meeting in South Carolina, a former Elm Creek Quilts camper approaches her and asks her to examine a very old and unique quilt that had been in her family for generations. When Sylvia discovers that the patterns sewn into the quilt contain an unmistakable image of Elm Creek Manor, she realizes that there may be more to her family’s antebellum history than she’s been told. Sylvia searches the attic of Elm Creek Manor, hoping for answers, and she unearths three more quilts as well as the journal of Gerda Bergstrom. Gerda was the spinster sister of family patriarch Hans, and the pages of her memoir contain a story Sylvia never could have imagined. The story illuminates the true legacy of the Bergstrom family and the realities of their connection to the Underground Railroad, giving Sylvia and the reader insight into a period of history fraught with social tension, dangerous secrets, and conflicts of conscience and belief that split even the closest of ties. Led to question all she believed about herself and her family, Sylvia is forced to come to terms with her new perceptions, drawing on the comfort, support, and love of her friends as well as the best of her heritage to accept her past and move forward.


1. What did you think of Anneke’s decision in June of 1859, which she claims to have made in the best interest of her family? Did you see it as a betrayal, or an act of protection? If you were in Anneke’s position, what would you have done?

2. Gerda often notes that Hans’s high-handed treatment of Anneke was unwise. Do you think his attitude played a part in Anneke’s choice? What might he have done differently? How might that have changed the eventual outcome?

3. When Sylvia reads that Jonathan married Claire, though he loved Gerda, she dismisses him as a “spineless, selfish fool” (p. 174). Do you agree with her, or do you think he did the honorable (if not the right) thing? Were you surprised by Thomas’s perspective on the situation, as laid out in his letter to Dorothea?

4. The more she reads, the more Sylvia struggles to come to terms with the truth about the Bergstrom family’s history. Is she justified in the judgments she makes about Anneke and Gerda? How much are her assumptions biased by her more recent personal history with her own sister, Claudia?

5. What do you think of Gerda’s decision to purposely keep the name of Joanna’s son hidden? Why do you think she did it? What does it say about her character?

6. At the end of the novel, Sylvia and Grace discuss whether it was right never to tell Joanna’s son about his heritage. What do you think was the right course? Ultimately, do you feel that revealing difficult truths about the past leads only to pain, or do you feel that the disclosure of even painful truths eventually leads to some more significant understanding? Do you think Sylvia is better off knowing what she knows? Do you think that by not telling Joanna’s son about his mother, the family denied him something valuable?

7. Gerda is ashamed of the surprise that she feels upon learning that Mr. Abel Wright, a colored man, also operates a station on the Underground Railroad. Discuss the conflicting viewsof race and social status that surface throughout the novel. Did any particular attitude surprise you? Do you think it was impossible for anyone at the time, even the most dedicated Abolitionists, to consider blacks and whites as equal? Do you think that the Bergrstrom family overcame the divide through the choices they made about Joanna’s son?

8. Gerda seems to accept her destroyed reputation rather serenely. Do you think this is because she felt she hadn’t anything left to lose at that point? Or do you think she acted out of guilt—that by shouldering the burden of a scandal, she somehow atoned for her family’s role in Joanna’s fate? Or do you think there are other reasons for her actions and her acceptance of them?

9. Kathleen and Rosemary argue about the best way to preserve the letters Thomas wrote to Dorothea. Do you believe that documents of historic value, even those as personal as letters between a husband and wife, are best preserved in a museum? Or do you think they should stay within the family they belong to?

10. As Grace notes, it has never been proven that quilts were used as signaling devices on the Underground Railroad. What do you think? Can you think of a signal that might have worked better?

11. Various characters throughout the novel make the point that, while Gerda promises a faithful accounting of the events that transpired, there’s no way for the memoir to encompass the entire truth. How differently do you think the account would have read if Hans had written it? Anneke? Joanna?

12. Do you think Sylvia’s decision to finally marry Andrew in the end shows an acceptance of the past (both in terms of the Bergstrom legacy, and her own rocky relationship with Claudia) and a decision to really move forward? Do you feel that Sylvia has changed by the end of the novel? In what ways?


1. Research real signals used by stations on the Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War. Are you surprised by what you found?

2. Look up examples of “Birds in the Air” and “Log Cabin” quilt patterns. What do the block names and imagery evoke for you?

3. If you could leave a message in a quilt for future generations to discover, what might you stitch? Why?

4. Read about the Bergstroms’ World War II history in The Quilter’s Apprentice. Compare the Bergstrom families in the two historically significant eras. Do you detect echoes of the past in the more contemporary characters and setting?

5. Visit the author’s website at for photos of quilts featured in the Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as information on Jennifer Chiaverini’s novels, fabric lines, and pattern books.


What inspired you to write The Runaway Quilt? Do you have a special interest in the antebellum period or the Civil War era?

I’m fascinated by history, especially women’s roles in American history, and writing the Elm Creek Quilts novels has given me the opportunity to study and write about a variety of historic periods and places. The era of the Underground Railroad and the Civil War were tumultuous times that display some of the best and worst sides of humanity. 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. It’s little wonder, then, that my favorite characters to write about either possess similar qualities, or are given opportunity to rise to these qualities but fail. What slavery and the Underground Railroad say about our country—that we are capable of both great moral failings and the potential for goodness—resonates strongly even today, perhaps especially today, and as a creative person, I am drawn to explore and try to understand that conflict.

How did you come up with the theme of the Underground Railroad signal quilts for the story?

Like many quilters, I was fascinated by the folklore about signal quilts used along the Underground Railroad. The stories 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 bit of history for that story, but even then I thought the concept was rich and intriguing enough to deserve an entire book of its own.

The idea of using a quilt as a map or a mnemonic device is fascinating. Do you know if this actually occurred?

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, numerous 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 Runaway Quilt, my characters engage in this debate just as real-life quilters and historians do. As the story unfolds, I try to provide an explanation for the evolution of the legend, honoring the oral tradition while also adhering to confirmed historical fact.

Your novel takes serious historical fact and stitches it into the seams of personal relationships and romance. Do you find it difficult to strike a balance between the two?

I don’t make a conscious decision to balance one mood, theme, or plot element against another. My writing process is more intuitive than that—I don’t begin with an outline, and I don’t know how the story will end when I begin writing. I prefer the process of discovery, of allowing the characters to interact with one another and seeing where that leads.

Did the manuscript evolve much between when you first started and finished?

Not as much as my first three books, but I had planned The Runaway Quilt for years, long before I even found a publisher for The Quilter’s Apprentice. My friend and fellow writer Christine Johnson inadvertently gave me the idea for The Runaway Quilt after she critiqued the eighth chapter of The Quilter’s Apprentice in our writing workshop. Upon reading the scene where Sylvia shows Sarah the gazebo and talks about the legend of the Log Cabin quilt with black center squares, Christine wondered what would have happened if someone had made such a quilt, not knowing it was a secret signal, and unwittingly beckoned fugitive slaves to her home. I realized how potentially compelling and powerful a story that explored this question could be, so I tucked it away in a corner of my imagination, mulling it over in my subconscious for years until I felt I was ready to develop it.

Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Which character do you identify with most? Are any of the characters in The Runaway Quilt based on people you know?

I don’t write autobiography, so none of the characters in any of the Elm Creek Quilts novels are based upon me. Writing fiction is a channel through which I can experience lives other than my own. Writing myself into a story would negate that experience. Sometimes my characters are composites of people I’ve known, and I’ve borrowed names or written a few quilting friends into my novels through the years, but I don’t write about myself. When I was a student at Notre Dame, one of my professors advised our class never to put ourselves into our stories, because inevitably those are the characters everyone hates, and we would feel terrible about it. I suppose I took that advice to heart!

What made you decide to write the memoirs from Gerda’s point of view, as opposed to Anneke’s? Do you think the story would have read very differently had it been Anneke recounting the tale?

I chose Gerda because as an unmarried woman in her brother’s household, she occupied a rather precarious position both within the family and the community, one that allowed her independence of thought coupled with utter dependence upon her family’s good will for her material needs. She was within the family and yet not at the heart of it, which gave her a unique— though certainly not objective—perspective on the events recorded in her memoirs. Of course Anneke’s version of events would have differed significantly from her sister-in-law’s, even if the basic facts of the family history remained the same. Whether Anneke would have judged herself more harshly or more leniently than she did Gerda is an intriguing question.

Did you know, in your own mind, what Sylvia’s heritage would be? Did you set out writing the book knowing it was going to remain a mystery?

I didn’t plan it that way, but it still is a mystery, even to me! I may eventually write a story that requires the revealing of Sylvia’s heritage, but I don’t have any specific plans to explore it. As an amateur genealogist, I know that often even the most basic facts of an ancestor’s life can remain elusive. The unanswered questions at the conclusion of The Runaway Quilt reflect this reality.

Where do you think you’ll go next with the Elm Creek Quilters? Is there a character you’d particularly like to revisit?

Several of my books have had minor characters who’ve piqued my curiosity, and that has led to whole new books. Thinking about Joanna and what happened to her led directly to writing one of my later books, The Lost Quilter. In it, I explore her story after the events of The Runaway Quilt. Dorothea, a relatively minor character in The Runaway Quilt, became the focus of a later book, The Sugar Camp Quilt. In fact, many of the characters introduced in The Runaway Quilt return in the seventeenth Elm Creek Quilts novel, The Union Quilters, which will be published in February 2011. I also plan to revisit several of the characters introduced in The Quilter’s Homecoming in a future book.
Photograph © Michael Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of the New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series, five collections of quilt projects, and several historical fiction novels. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and sons in Madison, Wisconsin. To learn more, visit

“One of the most compelling storytellers I’ve read.... This is a series that has touched my heart. Chiaverini makes her characters and plots so real readers feel as if they’ve stepped back in time.”
--Jean Peerenboom, Green Bay Press-Gazette

“One of the most compelling storytellers I’ve read.... This is a series that has touched my heart. Chiaverini makes her characters and plots so real readers feel as if they’ve stepped back in time.”
--Jean Peerenboom, Green Bay Press-Gazette

More books from this author: Jennifer Chiaverini

More books in this series: The Elm Creek Quilts