Reading Guides

The Runaway Quilt
Jennifer Chiaverini



In her "warm, generous portrayals of women who live to quilt and quilt to live," (The Dallas Morning News), Jennifer Chiaverini weaves timeless themes of friendship, family, love, and loss in stories that attest to the strength of a sisterhood that can sustain, nurture, and transcend any obstacle. Each of her Elm Creek novels delineates a personal crisis in each of the character's lives, and shows how the comforting, communal act of quilting unites them, helps them confront painful truths, and build dreams for the future. Through their interactions, the intricate threads of the women's individual lives emerge, along with the choices each must make. Weaving together the disparate sections of their crazy-quilt existences, they create these glorious collages of loyalty, acceptance, and devotion that become a symbol of the bonds that hold their lives together.

In The Runaway Quilt, the fourth novel in Chiaverini's series reunites the Elm Creek Quilters in a spellbinding story of history and heritage as she explores a question that has long captivated quilters and historic scholars alike:

Did stationmasters of the Underground Railroad use quilts to signal to fugitive slaves?

For Sylvia Compson, it begins when she finds three threadbare antique quilts that may be linked to the founding of Elm Creek Manor—and to a devastating episode in American history. One of the quilts, called the Log Cabin quilt, contains a black center square that was often used as a signal to escaping slaves of a safe haven within the walls of Elm Creek Manor. But it is Sylvia's discovery of an old diary that becomes the catalyst for a journey back through time and memory.

The memoir was written over a hundred and fifty years earlier by Gerda, the spinster sister of Hans Bergstrom, the patriarch of the clan of whom Sylvia is the last living descendant. Using Gerda's words as her guide, she tries to stitch together the disparate pieces of her past. With the help of the Elm Creek Quilters and the patchwork clues in the quilts, Sylvia must reaffirm her own moral center as she comes to terms with her place in the complex tangle of her family history—and in an odyssey begun long ago. The Runaway Quilt tells a stirring tale of faith and thwarted love, betrayal and renewed hope.



Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of The Quilter's Apprentice, Round Robin, The Cross-Country Quilters, The Runaway Quilt, and The Quilter's Legacy (all available in Plume editions). She lives with her family in Madison, Wisconsin.



  1. The Runaway Quilt takes us back to the years of slavery and the Underground Railroad. What do you think of this historical perspective?
  2. Do you think the author was successful in interweaving the act of quilting with this segment of our nation's collective past?
  3. How does the author tie in her trademark themes of friendship, loyalty, devotion, and love with this particular episode in America's history?
  4. Who and what does Joanna symbolize in the story?
  5. Gerda's memoir opens on October 2, 1895, after all the pivotal events in her life and in the lives of her loved ones have already occurred. Here, she writes that her pride has already bested her and "if I cannot be honest about such a small matter of vanity, how can I hope to be forthright about the harder truths?" To what 'harder truths' is she referring? She goes on to say that she "must be honest, not merely for the sake of my own soul, but to honor the memory of those whom I love…even as they betrayed me." What is the betrayal she is talking about here?
  6. Gerda also writes that "future generations of Bergstroms will not thank me for my frankness." Why do these words haunt Sylvia and fill her with foreboding?
  7. What role does forgiveness play in the novel? Describe it from the points of view of both Gerda and Sylvia.
  8. How does Sylvia react to the revelation that she might be descended from slave owners? Near the end of the novel she tells Andrew that "If I am going to accept part of my heritage, I must accept all of it." By story's end, does she?
  9. Describe Sylvia's relationship with Andrew. Is it a happy and fulfilling one for both of them?
  10. What role does faith play in the novel--in both the past and present times? Can faith replace fact and even truth, at times, in a person's heart?
  11. What is Sarah's function in this novel? Do you see her relationship with Sylvia developing and growing stronger? How has their bond deepened since the debut book of the series, where they first met, The Quilter's Apprentice?
  12. Describe Margaret Alden's role in the story. How does Sylvia initially feel about her and how do these feelings change over the course of the novel?
  13. How do you feel about Hans and Anneke Bergstrom? How would you describe their marriage? Is Anneke an unusual woman for her time?
  14. What is Sylvia's greatest fear? Is this fear borne out during the course of the story?
  15. Does Sylvia experience closure at story's end?