“Is it worse to have no principles, or to have principles you cannot then uphold?”
This is the central question is this beautifully subtle and well played out-book, set in the Quaker communities in Ohio in the mid 19th century. The story of Honor Bright, who emigrates to America with her soon to be married sister, but who is forced through tragic circumstances to rely on the kindness of strangers for survival, it illustrates what the effects are on the wider community when she becomes involved, almost through accident, with the Underground Railway, a network of safe houses and stopping points for runaway slaves fleeing north through Ohio to Canada.
Honor is a quilter, and her deep involvement with the craft runs throughout the pages. As a crafter myself, (albeit a newish one, I’ve only been seriously sewing for about six months, though I’ve done many other projects beforehand), I appreciated how Chevalier used what could be seen as a simple hobby to inform and fill out her character, and to show how important craft has been in the lives of women and the communities they live in. The recent resurgence could be seen as not simply a retro revival because it is cool, but an almost radical reclaiming of a survival technique from captitalist-influenced materialism, not only because the items you make are useful to have, but because of the way it bonds people and, more than anything, gives you something to do and calm your mind.
What I loved about this book was how the character of a twenty year old Quaker girl could be used to form the structure and pace of the novel, there were real moments of peace and inner quiet, even during the most turbulent and traumatic of events. I also felt very informed by the novel, even though there was not that much information about the history of the Underground Railroad, or slavery, or the settlement of America and this is what the book gets(suprisingly, considering the quality of the writer) slammed for on goodreads. But this is a book about a young woman who wouldn’t know that much about the history of the world she was going to, she knows quilting, and cleaning house, and organising a home, and the book is just as fascinating for concentrating on these domesticities as it would be for being more detailed.
This book really made me a) want to quilt and b) think more about religious principles and principles in general. I admired Honor, and I wish more than anything there was a sequel as this is a character I could follow for a while.