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New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini returns with a Prohibition-era novel about one woman's journey to save her family —and herself.
With the nation in the throes of Prohibition, Rosa Diaz Barclay unwittingly discovers that her husband, John, has given over the duties of their Southern California rye farm in favor of armed bootlegging. Fearing the safety of her four beloved children, Rosa flees, with little more than a suitcase filled with John's ill-gotten gains and her heirloom quilts. Accompanying her is Lars, a good but flawed man who is the mother of two of her children. Under assumed names, Lars and Rosa hire on at a Sonoma County vineyard, seeking not only refuge from danger, but convalescence for two of the children, who suffer from a mysterious wasting disease. The devotion of the Italian-American community to the craft of viticulture inspires Rosa to acquire a vineyard of her own, even as she discovers firsthand its inherent hardships and dangers winemakers face in such turbulent times.
Jennifer Chiaverini lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to the six volumes in the Elm Creek Quilts series and two books of quilt patterns inspired by the novels, she designs the Elm Creek Quilts fabric line from Red Rooster Fabrics.
Q. Sonoma Rose is a historical novel in a series that includes both contemporary and historical books. Alternating between past and present must offer unique creative opportunities. Could you describe your methodology for selecting the eras and settings you write about? Did you plan to take this approach from the beginning of the series?
I enjoy writing both contemporary and historical novels, and I'm pleased that my readers have been willing to let me stretch the definition of series so that I can continue to write in both genres. When I wrote my first novel, The Quilter's Apprentice, I had no idea it would be the first of many intertwined books, so I didn't map out an extended storyline that would be spread out over a certain number of volumes. In hindsight, I think it's fortunate that I launched the Elm Creek Quilts series this way. Instead of proceeding in a strict linear fashion, following the same thread of the same character's life in perfect chronological order, I've been able to take secondary characters from earlier stories and make them the protagonists of new books. In other novels, I've delved into a familiar character's past, exploring entirely new settings and characters that are still tied in some way to the Elm Creek Valley. Because I've been flexible with the traditional series format, I've enjoyed the creative freedom to write novels that explore new characters, settings, and historical eras while still satisfying readers who want to see the people and places they have already come to know and love.
Q. Although most of the novel is set in Sonoma County, when readers first meet Rosa Diaz Barclay, she is living with her four children and her abusive husband on a rye farm in Southern California. How did your personal connection to this region lead you to explore it in your fiction?
When I was in high school, my family moved from southeastern Michigan to Thousand Oaks, California, a city in the Conejo Valley about 45 miles north of Los Angeles. My first job was working as a page at the Thousand Oaks City Library, which is where I met Patricia A. Allen, a renowned local historian who made quite an impression on me. As a sixteen-year-old, I was fascinated by the idea that a place that seemed so new had such a rich history. I checked out all of Ms. Allen's books from the library, and I also learned a great deal from co-workers who had lived in the region for many decades and had witnessed its transformation from a farming town and occasional outdoor movie set to a growing residential community. Those stories lingered in my memory all these years, germinating, awaiting the story that eventually became The Quilter's Homecoming, the novel in which Rosa, her husband John, and her true love Lars first appear. Some locations and events in the fictional Arboles Valley—such as the mesa where Rosa and her children secretly meet with her mother and the Salto Canyon where they hide from John and are nearly swept away by a flash flood—will seem very familiar to people who know Thousand Oaks.
Q. After John's anger and jealousy erupt in a terrifying act of violence, Rosa, her children, and Lars flee north, on the run from John, the mobsters with whom he had become entangled, federal agents investigating his mob ties, and the secrets of their pasts. After a brief stay in San Francisco to seek medical advice for Rosa's two ailing children, they travel on to Sonoma County, where they assume new identities as Rose and Nils Ottesen. Why did you choose to place Rosa and Lars on a vineyard during Prohibition, one of America's most infamous eras and a time when grape growers and winemakers were struggling?
At the end of The Quilter's Homecoming, my first novel set in the California of the past, Rosa and Lars play secondary roles, albeit very significant ones. Near the end of the book, readers learn that they have moved to Sonoma County with the four children, that they've assumed new identities, and that they are owners of a thriving vineyard and winery. After all they had endured I wanted them to have a happy ending, and for two people who loved the land and whose families had thrived as farmers for generations, I couldn't imagine any reward greater than happiness and prosperity in one of the most beautiful regions of the country. It wasn't until several years after Homecoming was published that it occurred to me that I had made Rosa and Lars owners of a thriving vineyard during Prohibition, a particularly challenging time for anyone, even experienced vintners, to embark upon such a venture. I suppose I could have considered that a mistake and prayed that no one noticed, but honestly, when I realized what circumstances I had placed Rosa and Lars in, my immediate reaction was, "That's impressive. I wonder how they managed to do that?" I decide to write Sonoma Rose to satisfy my curiosity.
Q. How did the grape growers and winemakers of Sonoma County survive Prohibition?
The unfortunate truth is that many of them did not. When Prohibition began in 1920, there were 256 wineries in Sonoma County, 120 in Napa, and 324 elsewhere in California. A decade later, fewer than 160 wineries were still in operation in the entire state. Those that survived to see the end of Prohibition in December 1933 did so by obtaining permits to produce wine for sacramental purposes, by selling wine grapes, by converting to table grapes and other crops, or by turning to bootlegging—a dangerous, illegal, and not uncommon activity.
Q. As Rosa struggles to build a new life for herself and her children in the California Wine Country, she is haunted not only by the fear that her abusive husband will pursue them, but also by an unscrupulous Prohibition agent who suspects that "Rose and Nils Ottesen" are hiding something and becomes determined to uncover their secrets. Did your research turn up a historical counterpart for Agent Dwight Crowell, or is he entirely fictional?
Dwight Crowell is not based upon any individual in particular, but regrettably, he had far too many real-life counterparts. From the very beginning, corruption plagued the Prohibition Bureau. Throughout the country, agents and officers were arrested for embezzlement, extortion, intoxication, disorderly conduct and assault, trespassing, theft, and acting in an unnecessarily destructive manner during raids. In response to public outcry over these ongoing problems, the department was frequently reorganized, restructured, and renamed, but nothing, apparently, could purge it of corruption until it was finally closed down after the repeal of Prohibition. In one notorious incident, mere hours before they were to be relieved of duty, the twenty-five agents in Sonoma raided a popular roadhouse, seized a small amount of liquor, arrested the chef, and hauled him off to the county jail, where he was photographed, fingerprinted, arraigned, and held on $750 bail. Local citizens considered this raid especially mean-spirited and all too typical of the bureau.
Q. Your historical fiction has been praised, among other reasons, because "[f]rom the Civil War to the Roaring '20s to contemporary settings, these novels have offered suspense, romance and in-depth looks into the social, political and cultural differences that helped shape a nation" (BookPage). How do you research your historical Elm Creek Quilts novels, and how did you research Sonoma Rose in particular?
Whenever I write historical fiction, I begin my research at the Wisconsin Historical Society library in my hometown of Madison. It's a wonderful resource, an archive of marvelous depth and scope tended by knowledgeable, curious, enthusiastic librarians and scholars. I also believe that travel is absolutely essential for understanding the nature of a place and its people. My favorite research trips include a visit to Charleston to explore the city and its history for The Lost Quilter, my sojourns in Hawaii while researching and writing The Aloha Quilt, and, of course, my visit to Sonoma County for Sonoma Rose. The vintners at the Benziger Family Winery—which inspired the Sonoma Rose Vineyard and Orchards in the novel—and the Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery were especially helpful. I am also indebted to Gaye LeBaron, a local historian and author, for her insightful review of the manuscript at a crucial stage.
Q. Sonoma Rose features two quilts, "Road to Triumph Ranch" and "Arboles Valley Star." Rosa cherishes them so much that she includes them among the precious few belongs she takes when she flees from her husband, and she will not contemplate abandoning them even when threatened by a flood in the Salto Canyon. What is the significance of these quilts to Rosa? What inspired you to include them in the story?
"Road to Triumph Ranch" and "Arboles Valley Star" are my renditions of two antique quilts I discovered on a research trip to the Stagecoach Inn Museum in Newbury Park, California. This local history museum is a reproduction of the Grand Union Hotel, built in 1876 to serve stagecoach passengers traveling through the Conejo Valley. The original building burned down in 1970, but the museum was a wonderful resource when I was writing both The Quilter's Homecoming and Sonoma Rose, and it inspired the Grand Union Hotel where Rosa worked as a bookkeeper. In the novel, the quilts are a cherished reminder of Rosa's heritage and, especially, of her late mother, who died under mysterious circumstances. The Road to Triumph Ranch quilt was her great-grandmother's wedding quilt, which she sewed as a young bride-to-be in Texas before coming to Southern California to marry Rosa's great-grandfather. The Arboles Valley Star, a more recent creation, was pieced by Rosa's mother from scraps of fabric significant to the family—a piece of ivory sateen from her wedding gown, a bit of white satin from Rosa's daughter's baptismal cap. Rosa's mother also included a square embroidered with Rosa and Lars's initials, signifying that she forgave Rosa for the choices that had led to their estrangement, and that she at last realized that Rosa and Lars belonged together.
Q. As a quilter and designer, what do you think of the resurgence of the handmade and craft movement in the past five years or so?
I think it's wonderful that so many people are discovering what an abundance of joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment there is to be found in expressing oneself artistically. As far as quilting is concerned, however, the resurgence began much earlier than five years ago. The origins of the current quilting renaissance go back at least as far as the 1970s and the important work of quilters like Jean Ray Laury, Bonnie Leman, and Jinny Beyer. Today's quilters—and the quilters of generations yet to come—are indebted to the artists, historians, and teachers who kept the traditions of this significant art form alive throughout the years, even when its popularity waned.
Sonoma Rose is your nineteenth Elm Creek Quilts novel, and your loyal readers are no doubt eagerly awaiting the twentieth. Can you give us a preview?
My next novel, The Giving Quilt (Dutton, October 2012), returns to contemporary times as the Elm Creek Quilters host a special week of winter quilt camp to create quilts for Project Linus, a national organization whose mission is to provide love, a sense of security, warmth, and comfort to children in need through the gifts of new, handmade blankets, quilts, and afghans. Sylvia, Sarah, and the gang will welcome four new characters—and one reader favorite who first appeared in my ninth novel, Circle of Quilters—to Elm Creek Manor, where they become confidantes and discover the many rewards, meanings, and purposes of giving. After that, I'll probably delve into the past again, because I'm fascinated by American history—especially women's roles in American history—and there are many new topics I'm eager to explore.
- How does the author immediately convey the atmosphere in John and Rosa's home in the first few pages of the novel? How does she show the reader right away that their marriage is not a happy one?
- What were your first impressions of Lars? Why does Rosa insist that he need not come with them when they leave Oxnard?
- Knowing that John had plenty of money stored in the valises in the barn, why do you think he still refused to bring the children to a doctor? Was it because he genuinely believed that no doctor could cure them? Or do you think there was another reason?
- Why do you think the author chose to reveal the reason Rosa married John rather than Lars slowly, over the course of the first half of the novel? How did learning the story behind Lars and Rosa's first romance little by little alter your perception of Lars? Of John? What does this technique lend to the story?
- How does the doctor at the hospital treat Rosa? What about the nurse? What challenges does Rosa face in the novel that women today might not? How does she deal with them?
- Rosa is a devoted and nurturing mother. How do her children support her in turn? Were you surprised when Lupita says that she misses John? How do the children cope with their father's violence?
- The quilts that Rosa's mother Isabel gave to her when Marta was born were, in a sense, a peace offering as well as a token of love. What do you think the quilts Rosa makes for her children mean to her? What does she hope the children will take from them?
- Consider Rosa's reaction when the children are diagnosed with celiac disease. Can you understand how she feels? How do you think you might react in the same situation?
- How do the Cacchiones welcome the "Ottesens" into their lives? When Rosa and Lars discover that they're bootleggers, does it change their opinion of the family?
- When Dante is imprisoned and the Cacchiones are debating whether or not to proceed with selling their wines, did you find yourself more in agreement with Lars or with Rosa? Why? Did this novel change your understanding of Prohibition in any way?
- What makes Rosa finally stop pushing Lars away and embrace their new life together? Why had she been resisting him before?
- What did you make of Mr. Crowell? How does he compare to Mr. Lucerno? What did you think of Rose's decision to point the gangsters to "Lars Jorgensen?" Would you have done the same?
- Were you satisfied by the end of the novel? What does the gifting of "Triumph Ranch" to the Nelsons tell you about Rosa and Lars? Would you have expected anything less? What do you imagine the future holds for Rosa and Lars themselves?