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Best-selling author of 'Quilt' titles to stop at Sewickley bookshop

| Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, 5:12 p.m.
Author Jennifer Chiaverini
Michael Chiaverini
Author Jennifer Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini built a loyal readership based on stories about quilts and quilters. The best-selling author, who appears Sept. 17 at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, launched her career with titles such as “The Runaway Quilt” and “The Quilter's Kitchen.”

But with the release of “Sonoma Rose” in 2012, a novel about a farming family in Prohibition-era California, the former Penn State writing instructor turned her attention to more weighty material. Her current novel, “Fates and Traitors” (Dutton, $27), is again historical fiction, but with an atypical slant.

“I like to be able to see important historical events, important historical figures, through unique perspectives, from an outsider's perspective,” Chiaverini says. “They're very different angles from the ones you learn in history class.”

Chiaverini is especially interested in the viewpoints of women and people of color. In a previous book, “Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker,” she explored the life of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became a seamstress, writer and activist.

For “Fates and Traitors,” Chiaverini tackles the life of John Wilkes Booth through the women who knew him best: Mary Ann, his mother; his sister and confidante, Asia; Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of a senator in thrall to the actor-turned-assassin; and a Confederate widow, Mary Surratt, who is privy to Booth's plans.

The book opens with Booth at the Garrett farmhouse in northern Virginia, surrounded by pursuers, facing the last moments of his life.

“It's the end of his story, but certainly not the end of the story for the women in his life,” Chiaverini says. “I thought it would be a good place to start, not because it's so dramatic and riveting, but also because he surely must have been thinking about my four narrators. We know from the historical records, from the eyewitness accounts, that his last words were for his mother (‘Tell my mother I died for my country') and that his last written testimony was addressed to his sister in a sealed envelope.”

Chiaverini explores the motivations and psychological underpinnings of the women in detail. Her portrayal of Mary Surratt is particularly enlightening. Surratt and her husband, John, ran a tavern in Maryland that was known to host Confederate sympathizers, and a plan to kidnap Lincoln was hatched at a boarding house she owned in Washington, D.C.

Surratt emerges as a complex figure with an unenviable legacy.

“She's very important in American history,” Chiaverini says, “and not only because of her role in the assassination, which even today historians are not quite sure how much she knew. She was the first woman ever executed by the federal government. No one thought the new president (Andrew Johnson) would go through with it. Everyone expected at the last minute he would want to pardon her, because who would want to go down in history as the first president to execute a woman?”

While “Fates and Traitors” is set in the past, Chiaverini connects the four women to horrific crimes committed today. She was compelled to write the novel in order to try to find out how these women survived bearing the mark of Booth's sin, just as the families today are marked by the actions of loved ones who commit atrocities.

“What happens in real life is there might be one little sign, but not enough to worry you or make you questions what their plans might be,” Chiaverini says. “So I wanted to explore that: What do you do after the person you love becomes the most hated person in America? How do you go on with your life when people hold you accountable for the atrocities committed by a family member, someone you love?”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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