Henry Cole’s Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad (see the Review of the Week, by Betty Carter) presented us with some very complicated questions. It’s a terrific and intriguing book, a wordless, pencil-illustrated tale of a young girl feeding and protecting a person hiding behind the cornstalks in her family’s barn; soldiers and a Confederate flag provide some context, as, of course, does the subtitle. Featured in several of the pictures is a quilt draped over the rails of the fence surrounding the family’s property. The quilt is the focus of the opening spread; later, bounty-hunters on horseback seem to see it; at the end, when the fugitive seems to have safely escaped, the quilt is on the little girl’s bed.
In case you’re wondering if this quilt is one of those quilts, the afterword in the f&g review copy said:
“One way of knowing a house was safe [for escaped slaves] was by spotting a quilt stitched in a certain pattern hanging nearby. These quilts, most notably the ‘star quilt,’ were like signposts written in code.”
Nuh-UH say historians, and in the review we duly noted the perpetuation of a myth that’s been popular in children’s books since Deborah Hopkinson’s Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, published in 1993. But then it turned out that someone at Scholastic had already been alerted to the problem, and any references to quilts were removed from the author’s note in the finished book (and removed from Betty’s review). Phew.
We are however left with the pictures of the quilt hung out to dry, as it were, its prominence now not misleading so much as inexplicable. Or does the quilt only seem prominent to me because I knew what it had been meant to mean? Lolly and Robin, over to you.