The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
18 September, 2013
August’s choice for my book group by Miranda was The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. It’s been many years since I read Chevalier’s first novel, The Girl with the Pearl Earring which I remember enjoying and although I wouldn’t have picked up The Last Runaway myself, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to read it. It’s not a subject which I normally gravitate towards but I do have a slight interest in Quakers, quilting and runaway slaves.
In The Last Runaway, Honor Bright boards a ship with her sister and leaves England and a broken heart for a new life in America. They are on their way to Ohio to meet her sister’s fiancé, Adam. The crossing is difficult and Honor realises that she will never be able to return to England and that part of her life is over. But tragedy strikes as they make their way across America from New York and Honor finds herself alone in a strange and lonely land where the food is different and even the Friends worship differently. But her strong and exquisite quilting skills honed in England makes an impression amongst her new community and she makes a friend in Belle Mills who owns a millinery shop in Wellington, a small town near Faithwell when Honor is now residing with Adam and his widowed sister-in-law, and catches the eye of Jack Haymaker, an eligible young farmer. But soon, talk flourishes and Honor has to make a decision about whether she wants to stay in Faithwell and conform to the strict expectations of her community. With such big changes occurring in Honor’s new life comes an even bigger predicament. For Faithwell is part of the underground railway used by desperate slaves running for freedom to Canada. With her principles urging her to help and yet her community holding her back, Honor has more than one big decision to make about her life and future. And it doesn’t help that the local slave catcher, Donovan, has set his eyes upon her and won’t leave her heart alone.
There was much I enjoyed about Chevalier’s latest novel since her writing style flowed easily and I practically gobbled it up wanting to know what would happen to Honor especially since so much happens within such a short time frame. I really liked the character of Honor who is purposeful and has strong principles although rather naïve. The way she deals with her problems, loss, her judgmental community and helping the runaway slaves rarely shows she understands the consequences of her actions. And yet she does it instinctively and with all her heart. You can’t help but admire her.
I found her silence after a slave is found dead of exposure touching, especially since it provoked such a hostile response from the Quaker community who believed her to be judging them. And I couldn’t help but wish that Honor and Donovan would somehow get together like in some heady romance even though Jack is the stabler option. But Chevalier knows what works and what doesn’t and found her choices realistic.
I also particularly enjoyed reading about the values treasured by the Quakers, their way of life and the importance of quilts and quilt making. It’s made me want to go out and try my hand at quilting which I’ve heard is hard!
The only issue I have with The Last Runaway is that it lacked depth considering the complex and heavy issues it deals with. It’s not just a tale of a young woman starting her life in a new country and dealing with all the differences in attitude between the new and old worlds, the notions of living your life according to a set of strict religious guidelines alongside people of other faiths but it is one relating to racism and prejudice that underscores the deep fissures within American history. Enjoyable as The Last Runaway was, I wish she had gone into it a lot more, made it a little more difficult. And with Chevalier’s writing, she could have done it.