The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.
I have been a fan of Tracy Chevalier since I read The Lady and the Unicorn when it was first published almost a decade ago. Like all other Chevalier fans, as soon as I heard The Last Runaway was due to be published I was keen read it.
This novel did not disappoint. A young English Quaker from Dorset, Honor Bright, is jilted by her fiancé. Suddenly feeling untethered from her community, she boards a ship with her sister to begin the journey to Ohio where she will be seeking solace in a newly formed Quaker community. In Ohio, Honor becomes acquainted with people she would never imagine forming bonds with in her previous life. Honor inadvertently becomes involved in the Underground Railway, helping escaped slaves cross the nearby Canadian border. What Honor reluctantly discovers is that the whole abolition scenario isn’t as clear cut as her English Quaker sensibilities imagined.
I was taken by Honor’s voice from the first page. I recently wrote a blog about unique character voices; Honor certainly has one. Chevalier uses Honor’s passion for quilting as a way to show her desire for life to be orderly. Honor values structure and her possessions and interactions to be of superior quality, just like her quilts. Honor’s faith is shown through the way she uses the process of quilting as silent meditation, similar to being at the Meeting House. Finally, the importance Honor places on quilts and meditation shows the clear boundaries and limitations of her world view. Despite this, Honor does not strike me as naïve.
I liked Honor’s gentle observations about the differences between Ohio and her ‘one thousand year old hometown’ in Dorset. Not only is the Ohio landscape untamed and lacking order, the buildings and towns feel new and flimsy, as if they could be destroyed on a whim. This is troubling for someone seeking permanence and stability. The muddy roads and paths in Ohio constantly intrude on Honor’s activities and travels. As Ohio in the 1850s was a transitory place, perhaps this is a metaphor for Honor being unable to find where she belongs. Much to Honor’s surprise, she does not feel comfortable in the local Quaker community as she believes their actions to be at odds with doctrine.
Although the Underground Railway is an important part of this story, Honor’s contribution is rather minimal in the wider context. She feels it is her duty as a Quaker to help others escape from the bonds of their slavery but it is pointed out to her that while her actions are appreciated, she has only helped a handful of people. These runaways would have made it to the next safe house with or without her assistance. This does not bother Honor as she is on a personal journey which involves finding the courage to obey her inner light and do her duty.
Chevalier sensitively portrays the runaway slaves Honor encounters. The runaways often appear fleetingly, quickly passing through the woods near her farm to the town of Oberlin. Many of their back stories are only subtly hinted at. This makes the subject of abolition more powerful as the silences are there for you to fill in. Chevalier does not patronise the reader; she has kept the narrative concentrated on Honor and how she responds to the abolition movement. Essentially, the novel is not necessarily one of slavery but of Honor finding a place where she belongs.
The Last Runaway has a consistently gentle pace throughout, much like Honor’s measured approach to life. The ending of is realistic and rounds off the story well. It is a relatively slow paced read but I still found it a page turner.
The Last Runaway: 5 Stars
Thank you to Harper Collins for providing a review copy of this title.
The Last Runaway reminds me of another excellent book I have read:
The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber. In the early 20th century, Rachel and her husband Isaac are working their cattle ranch in the Dakota Badlands during an unforgivable drought. Black ranch owners are few and far between which makes Rachel’s feeling of isolation more precarious. Living one step away from absolute poverty and trying to provide for her children and support her husband’s decisions, Rachel’s story is moving and tender. The author found inspiration for this story after seeing an old photo of a Black female rancher at a museum. I have recommended this book to two people who loved also loved it, as they probably will The Last Runaway.
- The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier (recordedbooksblog.com)
- #502 ~ The Last Runaway (literatehousewife.com)
- The Last Runaway By Tracy Chevalier (spiffingbooks.wordpress.com)