Emmy Blue Hatchett, age ten, lives with her parents and a close aunt and uncle in Illinois in 1863. Little does she know that everything is about to change when her father and uncle announce that they're all setting out for Golden, Colorado. The men want their families to live in the clean mountain air; even more, they want to build a business block that will include stores, hotels, and restaurants to serve the population that has begun to boom following the gold rush.
On the face of it, The Quilt Walk is a good adventure story: friends, enemies, turn-backs, rattlesnakes, and death in a Conestoga wagon train. But as I read I was most keenly aware that the book is a study of male/female relationships, primarily in marriage, despite the fact that we are always in the child Emmy's POV. In many ways Ma is a typical feminine woman of her day: she quilts, as she does all needlework, with only the tiniest, straightest stitches; and if anyone dares question her husband she responds with a firm "Thomas knows best." Still, she voices to Thomas plainly, if calmly, that he did not consult her before making this decision, and that leaving her extended family, her sewing circle, and the graves of their deceased children will be a struggle for her that he does not appreciate. And when there is just not room in the wagon for everything they would like to bring, to the point where Thomas says they can't bring extra clothes, Ma and Emmy solve the problem by wearing every dress they own, and not taking them off until Thomas, later in the journey, is the one to back down. Aunt Catherine, by contrast, so hates the idea of going to Colorado that she almost refuses to leave home, but after a few days on the trail she accepts it, seems to purposely change her attitude, and becomes a helpful and even positive person, free of resentment. That there's a line not to be crossed in submission to a husband, and that the husband, for his part, is required to be a good man, is portrayed by another couple in the train, a new young bride whom the adult women, and eventually Emmy, realize is being physically abused, and her lazy, boorish husband, who hasn't the respect of a single man in the party. Yet another picture of what marriage meant for a woman in those days comes through a happy, vivacious lady and the wonderful husband who adores her -- until a single gunshot makes her the widowed mother of orphaned children, alone with a few oxen and a covered wagon.
Where Emmy's own feminity seems different from the typical is in her hatred of needlework. But walking alongside a covered wagon day after day can be incredibly boring, and tough going, and even Emmy is eventually encouraged to turn to the gift her grandmother gave her when they left: quilt squares from which to stitch her own quilt -- even while walking, as so many of the women did. And though I'm going to refrain from spoilers here, I will say that the progress of the various women's lives continues, showing the range of likely experiences for that day -- with a few surprises, and, in every case, hope.
This novel is based on a true story, and one of the quilts that the family brought to Colorado is now in the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden.
Great for lovers of historical fiction and strong girl stories.